Into the eye of Hurricane Maria
Experts use Raytheon unmanned aircraft to get an inside look at the storm
Six Raytheon-built Coyote UAVs dropped out of a NOAA WP-3D Orion weather surveillance plane, spread their wings and flew directly into Hurricane Maria as it threatened the U.S. East Coast, navigating winds of 100 miles per hour while providing near-real-time, potentially life-saving data.
The Coyotes gave researchers an unprecedented view of the powerful storm, gathering data in the eye wall and allowing forecasters to predict intensity from a safe distance.
“NOAA is investing in these unmanned aircraft and other technologies to increase weather observations designed to improve the accuracy of our hurricane forecasts,” said Dr. Joe Cione, a hurricane researcher at NOAA's Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory and chief scientist of the Coyote program. "The Coyotes collected critical, continuous observations in the lower part of the hurricane, an area impossible to reach with manned aircraft.”
Experts from Raytheon, NOAA and the National Hurricane Center worked together to develop the forecasting capabilities of Coyote, which was originally developed for military use. While traditional weather instruments parachute from a plane and capture only a snapshot of humidity, wind speed and other factors, Coyote's winged design enables it to linger and return to certain areas for more measurements.
The system can fly for more than an hour at least 50 miles from its host aircraft, and at low altitudes that would be unsafe for the plane to attempt.
“Raytheon technology is enabling hurricane hunters to understand storm behavior in new and better ways,” said Dr. Thomas Bussing, Raytheon vice president of Advanced Missile Systems. “Our expendable Coyote UAVs are delivering vital information about these potentially deadly storms—and that can help save lives.”
The system is a part of Raytheon’s family of high-tech weather forecasting technology, including the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite instrument aboard NOAA’s Suomi NPP spacecraft, the common ground system for the Joint Polar Satellite System, and the Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System, a powerful forecast toolkit that helps meteorologists make sense of the massive amounts of weather data that modern sensors collect.
Breaking the boundaries
Coyote solves a problem that has long limited forecasters’ ability to tell how hard a hurricane will hit. The secret behind the storm's punch lies in what is known as the “boundary layer” – a low-altitude area that includes the surface of the ocean.
“That’s where the energy is extracted from the ocean to the atmosphere,” said Joe Cione, a NOAA hurricane researcher. “Unfortunately, it is too difficult for us to go with manned aircraft to fly down there.”
The best way – until now – was to use small, expendable sensors called dropsondes that plummet out of a plane and take quick measurements on their short-lived fall to the surface.
Coyote takes a different approach. It rides aboard the weather research aircraft inside a three-foot-long, five-inch-wide tube called a sonobuoy. When the plane gets close enough to the storm, the tube drops out of a chute, and Coyote spreads its wings and springs into action.
Coyote takes off
Coyote was first deployed in 2014, when NOAA launched four of the UAVs into Hurricane Edouard, a Category 3 storm. Scientists on board the aircraft received meteorological data in both the eye of the storm and the surrounding eye wall.
Engineers at Raytheon and the NOAA Aircraft Operations Center have upgraded Coyote’s sensor systems and improved its communications package to allow it to talk to the plane over longer distances, said Andrew Osbrink, Raytheon’s Coyote program manager.
“The plane will be able to place the Coyote in the storm and continue on its mission without stopping or doing anything related to Coyote, and continue doing the rest of their hurricane mission undisturbed, and still receiving Coyote data at all times,” he said in a previous interview. “This is a much better and much more efficient use of time and resources.”
For Cione and his colleagues, Coyote is a critical tool that allows them to accomplish their mission.
“At the end of the day," Cione said, "my job is to use science, knowledge and my abilities to save lives and protect property."