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    Scientists hope to steer robotic surfboards into hurricanes

    Matthew Cappucci

    THE WASHINGTON POST – For decades, atmospheric scientists have targetted hurricanes by land, sea and air, flying airplanes into their cores to collect measurements from the belly of the beast. Now, a joint venture between Saildrone and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is taking a new approach: drive winged, robotic surfboards into the path of an approaching storm.

    The novel technique builds upon years of exploration by Saildrones, which measure ocean water temperature, salinity and chemical composition, and can map the ocean floor. They even are equipped with acoustic sensors that can detect the presence and quantity of fish in a given area.

    Conventional Saildrone probes in the past haven’t been durable enough to sustain the harsh conditions found near the centre of hurricanes, but now the company is introducing a redesign that should allow it to endure a high-end storm. Five of Saildrone’s smaller units – the 23-foot Saildrone Explorer – will be positioned in the Atlantic’s hurricane belt this season.

    “Our goal is to get new insights into hurricane intensity and tracking with data that hasn’t been recorded with surface measurements as close to the centre of a hurricane as possible,” said Saildrone’s founder and chief executive Richard Jenkins.

    The company is working with funding from and in cooperation with NOAA, which, along with the National Hurricane Centre in Miami, will offer advice on where the units should be deployed and stationed.

    Ordinary Saildrone Explorers are rated to operate in winds as high as 50knots, or near 60mph, but winds in fierce hurricanes routinely exceed 115mph. Jenkins explained that the wing, which sits atop a mast and holds solar panels and instruments, is usually the first failure point in high winds. That forced the company to adapt.

    A Saildrone outfitted with a hurricane wing. PHOTO: SAILDRONE INC

    “[What we have now is] the same vehicle with a different wing,” Jenkins explained. “It’s really designed to be as robust as it possibly can be. It really has to survive that and be back on. With the modifications and new wings, there are five vehicles. Building the five new wings took us about three months.”

    The smaller, more durable wings are designed to withstand 100mph-plus winds, large, breaking waves and “being buried by big waves and tumbled”, Jenkins said.

    He said that the small wing makes the unit less top-heavy and more aerodynamic.

    Saildrone is planning to deploy three units out of the Caribbean and United States (US) Virgin Islands, and two from the shores of Florida. They can travel under their own power at one to to two mph.

    Christian Meinig is the director of engineering development at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory. He explained that this year will largely feature testing for what will hopefully become a routine deployment year after year.

    “It’s possible that the Saildrones will get damaged or even disabled under these conditions, but we will learn and continue to advance the designs and tactics,” he wrote in an email.

    The teams are excited at the prospect of understanding more about heat exchange within hurricanes, since the probes can gather readings in places that ships just can’t go. While buoys can and do collect data, Saildrones have a more expansive instrumentation arsenal and are mobile, compared to buoys, which are anchored in place.

    The Saildrone observations will be complemented by data from underwater gliders, which can dive below the surface to determine how deep a layer of warm water extends. The scientists hope to learn how that vertical profile of the water changes over time and after the passage of a storm.

    Each unit is also outfitted with a system of cameras that will observe sea spray and foam – a seemingly trivial byproduct of swarming seas that plays an enormous role in heat transfer to the atmosphere.

    “The spray coming off the waves is very important in the hurricanes,” Jenkins said. “Our goal is to use images to understand how the spray and foam is characterised, which is crucial to the atmosphere and ocean exchange.”

    Those are measurements that haven’t been taken before, and present a bit of a gap in present hurricane modelling and understanding.

    “I wouldn’t say our current understanding is inaccurate, but we just don’t know,” Jenkins said. “If you can’t measure the conditions and the fluxes, you just don’t know.”

    Meanwhile, Saildrone is also working with their larger models, the 72-foot Surveyor, to map bathymetry, or the slope and topography of the sea floor.

    “Mapping the sea floor is very important for storm surge,” Jenkins said. “There are large parts of the Florida shelf just completely unmapped where storm surge is happening. We’re hoping to get a whole fleet of Saildrones out to the shore to start mapping and to help people prepare.”

    Each will be equipped with sonar and, since they are larger units, can run at six knots, or seven mph.

    With tropical weather experts predicting an active hurricane season, odds are Jenkins and his team will have plenty of data to collect.

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