When the unmanned aircraft Global Hawk stalked Tropical Storm Erica in late August, workers with Cherokee Nation Technologies were part of the team gathering information on the potential hurricane.
The Global Hawk dropped probes from more than 60,000 feet, relaying data to scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It was the first high-altitude, real-time information provided from an unmanned aircraft to hurricane forecasters.
Cherokee Nation Technologies is supporting the use of unmanned aircraft systems to improve weather forecasting as part of a joint effort between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA to form forecast models for the National Hurricane Center. Six workers, — three full time and three part time — from Tulsa-based Cherokee Nation Technologies are working on the Sensing Hazards with Operational Unmanned Technology project.
John “JC” Coffey is Cherokee Nation Technologies’ director of unmanned systems and part of the project team. He’s a retired naval aviator who joined the company in 2014 to expand and improve the company’s unmanned systems offerings.
Coffey said unmanned aircraft can be used in a variety of situations and configurations to gather scientific data. He said the unmanned aircraft, from small drones to the giant Global Hawk, can be deployed in places where it’s simply too dangerous, too costly or too impractical for manned vehicles to operate.
NASA’s Global Hawk is 44-foot-long, has a wingspan of more than 116 feet, a height of 15 feet and a gross takeoff weight of more than 13 tons, including a 1,500-pound payload capability, according to a NASA fact sheet. A single Rolls-Royce turbofan engine powers the aircraft.
As part of the project, the unmanned aircraft flies missions over the Atlantic Ocean to gather information on temperature, humidity, pressure, wind speed and direction. The Global Hawk can cruise at altitudes of 60,000 feet, nearly 20,000 feet higher than manned aircraft and can gather weather data up to 24 hours at a time and stream it back instantly to researchers.
Robbie Hood, the drone program director for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the systems give scientists and forecasters an unprecedented ability to study diverse phenomenon, from the weather to climate change.
“It’s like putting a tropical storm under a microscope,” she said of the August flight over Tropical Storm Erica. “It gives us a three-dimensional picture of the storm’s evolution.”
She said the expertise of Cherokee Nation Technologies is helping her assess the capabilities of unmanned aircraft and their possible uses.
“Sometimes you just need a closer look at something,” Hood said.
Cherokee Nation Technologies employs 269 workers around the nation and is an arm of Cherokee Nation Businesses, a wholly owned corporation of the Cherokee Nation which serves as the holding company for all the tribe’s for-profit operations.
The companies operating under the Cherokee Nation Businesses banner include those dealing with aerospace, information technology, security, defense, the environment, construction, health care services and others, according to the corporation’s website. It employs more than 9,000 and posted $829 million in revenue for 2014.