WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The Coyote drone weighs just 13 pounds, but can whip through a powerful hurricane, skimming the sea’s surface to scoop up valuable information in an area that has been largely invisible to forecasters.
The new tool, which was presented to National Hurricane Center researchers this week in Miami, was first tested in 2014’s Category 3 Hurricane Edouard.
But that was only a dress rehearsal. This year, the small but formidable plane-shaped drone will blast into tropical cyclones and send real-time data back to hurricane forecasters tasked with making lifesaving predictions.
Weather experts hope the Coyote, by flying lower than manned-aircraft crews dare to go, will fill a gap in what they currently can learn about hurricanes.
“We all live down at the surface, and we need to know what is going on there to make better predictions,” said Joseph Cione, a meteorologist and principal investigator on the Coyote for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “We think this is a game changer.”
Forecasters currently rely on data gathered by pilots willing to fly P-3 “hurricane hunters” into storms, but those don’t go below 5,000 feet and on recent missions have stayed at 10,000 feet, Cione said.
Another tool is the dropsonde, a cylinder-shaped device that is shot out of the P-3 and collects data on its descent through a storm before crashing into the ocean. But their journey lasts only a few minutes, limiting the information they can relay back to the plane.
The Coyotes, which cost about $15,000 each, are also shot out of the P-3 and end their lives in the ocean. But they can be remotely operated from up to 100 miles away, and stay aloft for 70 minutes. Cione hopes to extend the battery life even longer with further research.
Also, while the Coyote collects data until it is swallowed by the sea, Cione has flown one for a sustained period at about 2,500 feet above the surface.
“There is data now at that level, but instead of being a snapshot, you have a whole movie,” Cione said.
The Coyote carries a Global Positioning System and measures temperature, air pressure and humidity. This year it will also measure ocean surface temperature — a key to knowing whether a storm will intensify or weaken.
“We’re not very good at forecasting rapid intensity change,” said Mark Powell, a former NOAA senior scientist and hurricane researcher who runs the Tallahassee, Fla.-based HWind Scientific, a hurricane-impact mapping company. “The drone is able to capture data where the winds are the strongest but where it’s too dangerous for a reconnaissance plane to fly.”
In 2004, Hurricane Charley surprised forecasters and Floridians alike when it strengthened in three hours from a Category 2 storm to Category 4 before making landfall near Punta Gorda.
That’s where the Coyote may help, said Cione.
When hurricane forecast models don’t have information, they’ll fill the gap with data gathered during a normal day, skewing predictions.
“Down the road, the real data would be used immediately in the models so you’re not surprised by something like Charley,” Cione said.