It’s hurricane season, and we’ve already seen the Gulf Coast pounded with rain, flooding, and gale force winds. Although humans have endured hurricanes and tropical storms for centuries, there’s still a lot we don’t know about how they form and why they intensify.

To that end, NASA recently deployed an unmanned Global Hawk aircraft over Hurricane Leslie’s current location in the Atlantic Ocean. They hope the observatory mission will help researchers and forecasters learn more about what’s driving the storms, in an effort to help citizens be better prepared for survival.

The Global Hawk took off from NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, CA, Thursday and landed at the agency’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, VA, yesterday at 11:37 a.m. EDT after spending 10 hours collecting data on Hurricane Leslie. It’s all part of something NASA calls the Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel (HS3) mission, and marks the first time the agency will be flying Global Hawks from the U.S. East Coast.


“The primary objective of the environmental Global Hawk is to describe the interaction of tropical disturbances and cyclones with the hot, dry and dusty air that moves westward off the Saharan desert and appears to affect the ability of storms to form and intensify,” said Scott Braun, HS3 mission principal investigator and research meteorologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD.

Systems on board the drone measure cloud structure and aerosols such as dust, sea salt and smoke particles, as well as temperature and water vapor, sea surface temperature and cloud properties. The Hawk’s AVAPS dropsonde system even ejects small sensors tied to parachutes that drift down through the storm, measuring winds, temperature and humidity (remind anyone of a certain robot loved by Helen Hunt?).

In fact, this isn’t the first time an autonomous robot has been deployed to help researchers learn more about hurricanes while keeping a safe distance. Just a few weeks ago, Revmodo reported on Alex, a Wave Glider robot that measures ocean temperatures up to a depth of 7 meters. “Unlike current data, which is limited to the surface temperatures that airplanes and satellites can collect, Alex can dive into the water to gather more stable temperatures that can be more useful in making predictions,” wrote Adele Peters. “The robot also measures wind speed and other weather data, along with wave direction and height.” The data Alex collects is fed into hurricane models that help forecasters predict the storms.

Photo Credits: NASA Wallops