Global Hawk drones to be used to hunt hurricanes this year

From the NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, it seems the days of the Orion P3 Hurricane Hunter aircraft may soon be numbered.

NASA mission sending unmanned aircraft over hurricanes this year

NASA’s Global Hawk No. 872 soars aloft on a functional check flight of the aircraft payload system and science instruments for the Genesis and Rapid Intensification Processes (GRIP) mission in August 2010. (NASA photo / Tony Landis).

Beginning this summer and over the next several years, NASA will be sending unmanned aircraft dubbed “severe storm sentinels” above stormy skies to help researchers and forecasters uncover information about hurricane formation and intensity changes.

Several NASA centers are joining federal and university partners in the Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel (HS3) airborne mission targeted to investigate the processes that underlie hurricane formation and intensity change in the Atlantic Ocean basin.

NASA’s unmanned sentinels are autonomously flown. The NASA Global Hawk is well-suited for hurricane investigations because it can over-fly hurricanes at altitudes greater than 60,000 feet with flight durations of up to 28 hours – something piloted aircraft would find nearly impossible to do. Global Hawks were used in the agency’s 2010 Genesis and Rapid Intensification Processes (GRIP) hurricane mission and the Global Hawk Pacific (GloPac) environmental science mission.

The mission logo for the Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel (HS3) airborne mission. HS3 will investigate the processes that underlie hurricane formation and intensity change in the Atlantic Ocean basin.

“Hurricane intensity can be very hard to predict because of an insufficient understanding of how clouds and wind patterns within a storm interact with the storm’s environment. HS3 seeks to improve our understanding of these processes by taking advantage of the surveillance capabilities of the Global Hawk along with measurements from a suite of advanced instruments,” said Scott Braun, HS3 mission principal investigator and research meteorologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

HS3 will use two Global Hawk aircraft and six different instruments this summer, flying from a base of operations at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

“One aircraft will sample the environment of storms while the other will measure eyewall and rainband winds and precipitation,” Braun said. HS3 will examine the large-scale environment that tropical storms form in and move through and how that environment affects the inner workings of the storms.

HS3 will address the controversial role of the hot, dry, and dusty Saharan Air Layer in tropical storm formation and intensification. Past studies have suggested that the Saharan Air Layer can both favor or suppress intensification. In addition, HS3 will examine the extent to which deep convection in the inner-core region of storms is a key driver of intensity change or just a response to storms finding favorable sources of energy.

The HS3 mission will operate during portions of the Atlantic hurricane seasons, which run from June 1 to November 30. The 2012 mission will run from late August through early October.

The swirling circulation pattern of Tropical Storm Frank off the southwestern coast of Baja California was captured in August 2010 by Ames Research Center’s HDVis camera mounted on the aft fuselage of NASA’s Global Hawk unmanned research aircraft. (NASA/NOAA image).

The instruments to be mounted in the Global Hawk aircraft that will examine the environment of the storms include the scanning High-resolution Interferometer Sounder (S-HIS), the Advanced Vertical Atmospheric Profiling System (AVAPS) also known as dropsondes, and the Cloud Physics Lidar (CPL). The Tropospheric Wind Lidar Technology Experiment (TWiLiTE) Doppler wind lidar will likely fly in the 2013 mission.

Another set of instruments will fly on the Global Hawk focusing on the inner region of the storms. Those instruments include the High-Altitude Imaging Wind and Rain Airborne Profiler (HIWRAP) conically scanning Doppler radar, the Hurricane Imaging Radiometer (HIRAD) multi-frequency interferometric radiometer, and the High-Altitude Monolithic Microwave Integrated Circuit Sounding Radiometer (HAMSR) microwave sounder. Most of these instruments represent advanced technology developed by NASA, that in some cases are precursors to future satellite sensors.

NASA’s Science Mission Directorate Global Hawk aircraft will deploy to Wallops Flight Facility from their home base at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center on Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

“HS3 marks the first time that NASA’s Global Hawks will deploy away from Dryden for a mission, potentially marking the beginning of an era in which they are operated regularly from Wallops,” said Paul Newman, atmospheric scientist at NASA Goddard and deputy principal investigator on the HS3 mission.

NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington is establishing a Global Hawk operations center for science operations from Wallops.. “With the Global Hawks at NASA Dryden in California, NASA Wallops will become the ‘Global Hawk – Eastern’ science center,” Newman said.

From rockets studying the upper atmosphere to unmanned aircraft flying over hurricanes, NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility is fast becoming a busy place for science. Wallops is one of several NASA centers involved with the HS3 mission. Others include Goddard, Dryden, Ames Research Center, Marshall Space Flight Center, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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The HS3 mission is funded by NASA Headquarters and managed by NASA’s Earth System Science Pathfinder Program at NASA’s Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va. The HS3 mission also involves collaborations with various partners including the National Centers for Environmental Prediction, Naval Postgraduate School, Naval Research Laboratory, NOAA’s Hurricane Research Division and Earth System Research Laboratory, Northrop Grumman Space Technology, National Center for Atmospheric Research, State University of New York at Albany, University of Maryland – Baltimore County, University of Wisconsin, and University of Utah.

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More images like the ones I added above are in the NASA Global Hawk gallery here

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36 thoughts on “Global Hawk drones to be used to hunt hurricanes this year

  1. And when they find anything which very slightly resembles a hurricane, they will blast it to shreds with Hellfire missiles and claim it was a wedding party
    bunch of terrorists.

  2. ROHA: That’s predator. I am more concerned they’ll follow every thunderstorm that turns into a minimal TS for 5 minutes and give it a name. Skew the statistics into even more nothing fish storms getting counted. Though if they could somehow up the power on the LIDAR and use the laser to kill the storm, that would be really cool SCIFI stuff there. Superstorm heading for population, LIDAR the sucker into cat 1 to get the rain without the damage. Too bad it doesn’t work that way :(

  3. one man’s hurricane is another man’s terrorist, er, freedom fighter?

    seriously, this sounds like a cool program…. should be some useful data from it??

  4. Owen in Ga says:
    June 1, 2012 at 9:09 pm
    ROHA: That’s predator.

    Reaper is the armed UAV. Predator’s just got a sensor suite, although the difference between the two (armed vs. not armed) seems to be more information than the average newsy can process..

  5. NASA realizes that Global Hawk drones can be used as part of their Muslim Outreach program too.

  6. Looks like they are loading the whole alphabet on these hurricane hunters, and some of it twice! (S-HIS, AVAPS, CPL, TWiLiTE, HIWRAP, HIRAD, HAMSR.) I doubt the Hellfire missiles will make it on board though, RoHa!

    Seriously, this is a chance to get a much closer look at hurricane formation, maturation, and decay with the very latest technology suites. Much will be learned from this!

  7. Actually, I believe the the Global Hawk is flown remotely or told where to go and has canned flight programs, but it is not autonomous.

  8. Actual science from NASA? I’m impressed. Would like to see the data too, I’m sure they’ll have some pretty impressive stuff from the alphabet soup.

  9. It’s a long way from Virginia to the Azores, where most storms are formed. Taking into account time to and from station, servicing and that there might well be multiple storms/hurricanes to track, Will 2 aircraft will be sufficient to get more than snapshots of the events or gather sufficient data to prove the system? What can this system do that geo-stationary satellites can’t?

  10. obviously this is the PR arm of the 30,000 drones to fly over the US – in some cases (potentially) armed. “drone” is a very dirty word in many countries. and the US president is definitely seen as the Drone President.

    as obama told the christian boy group, jonas brothers, he had two words for them if they got any ideas about coming for his very young daughters… “predator drones”.
    he added: “You will never see it coming.”

    the speed with which the US is being militarised domestically, is breathtaking. and so many people unconcerned.

  11. Mike Wryley says:
    June 1, 2012 at 10:00 pm
    Actually, I believe the the Global Hawk is flown remotely or told where to go and has canned flight programs, but it is not autonomous.

    Gezackly. GH flights are programmed, but the operator has override capability.

    We lost a few to icing before someone decided it might be a good idea to include an outside air temperature gauge and a lipid-based computer capable of deciding when to disengage the autopilot’s altitude-hold…

  12. Andrew30 said on June 1, 2012 at 9:32 pm:

    NASA realizes that Global Hawk drones can be used as part of their Muslim Outreach program too.

    Now that’s just silly. Haven’t the Reaper drones (aka Predator B) been providing all the Muslim Outreach the US needs?

    (And it was only yesterday that I first heard of Poe’s Law. I’ve been practicing that law for years.)

  13. Please explain why the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is doing weather research? Doesn’t seem to be in their mission statement does it?

  14. Sam Hall says:
    June 2, 2012 at 8:10 am

    Remote sensing has been part of their mission for decades.

  15. RoHa;
    You remind me of Clarke’s Thirty-Third Law:
    “Any advanced parody is indistinguishable from a real kook.”

  16. Bill Tuttle: When I was in the business, we called them Predator B on the ATO. Someone started calling them Reaper but I think that was at the “Company”.They tended to be off ATO and nearly shot down a couple of times as a result (that’s why the “Company” has advisers at the warfighter HQ.) The ADO tends to get a little nervous about UFOs in his zone.

  17. For those interested Global Hawk has a wingspan a few feet more than a Boeing 737, so it is not a small aircraft. It cruises at about 350 kts about 100 kts slower than a B737 so it is not as much of a ‘block car’ as Predators and Reapers which cruise at around 80 kts. However, as it operates at around 60,000 ft it is 25,000 ft above the majority of airline traffic. There is a lot of automation the system would be described as ‘Human On The Loop’ rather than ‘Human In The Loop’.

  18. Sam Hall says:
    June 2, 2012 at 8:10 am
    Please explain why the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is doing weather research? Doesn’t seem to be in their mission statement does it?

    I am pretty sure the first A in NASA would include aircraft. And NOAA does seem to be involved, even if only to provide some funding.

  19. Fun Fact: The Global Hawk costs more to buy and fly than the Mach 3 SR-71 spy-plane.

    RQ-1B Global Hawk
    Unit Cost: $211 Million
    Cost/Flight Hour: $31052

    SR-71 Blackbird (Adjusted for inflation from 1970 numbers.)
    Unit Cost: $188.74 Million
    Cost/Flight Hour: $27000 (If annual flying time greater than 300 hours)

    Sources:

    http://www.blackbirds.net/bbirdm&f.html

    http://www.wvi.com/~sr71webmaster/srqt~1.htm

    http://battleland.blogs.time.com/2012/03/13/global-hawk-thar-she-blow/

  20. Once we get past the WSLOA (We Sure Love Our Acronyms), this appears to be real science. Just because NASA also does some stuff we find laughable – or even “evil” – we shouldn’t dis the real science. I doubt if this is the kind of thing the “letter from the astronauts” is complaining about! Pity that the one discredits the other!

  21. Umm, can these drones penetrate the eyewall, or are they only going to flirt with the edges ?

  22. Read the article people, the Global Hawk will “overfly” the hurricane. In other words, it does not fly though it, but over it. Much safer that way.

  23. Owen in Ga says:
    June 2, 2012 at 10:11 am
    Bill Tuttle: When I was in the business, we called them Predator B on the ATO. Someone started calling them Reaper but I think that was at the “Company”.They tended to be off ATO and nearly shot down a couple of times as a result (that’s why the “Company” has advisers at the warfighter HQ.) The ADO tends to get a little nervous about UFOs in his zone.

    They (meaning, “They” — nudge, nudge, wink, wink) changed the designation when the outfit I used to work for took over the maintenance (unit-through-intermediate level) for the B-models in Balad. Somebody tried to get some non-contractual work done on a couple of A-models by throwing his rather substantial weight around and claiming that “a Predator is a Predator.”

    Everybody got nervous when an -A and a pair of -Bs went through their airspace at night — they’re quiet, but they’re not silent…

  24. Rhoda R says:
    June 2, 2012 at 12:20 am
    Are these drones powerful enough to handle hurricane winds?

    They don’t have to be — they’ll be flying at least 20,000 feet above them.

  25. “They don’t have to be — they’ll be flying at least 20,000 feet above them.”

    True, but none of these drone aircraft can take very much wind when it comes to taking off or landing. Hope they have several landing sites planned out. Shouldn’t be too difficult to arrange 3 or 4 across a wide area so they can go wherever the hurricane won’t be.

  26. Benjamin W says:
    June 3, 2012 at 12:29 pm
    “They don’t have to be — they’ll be flying at least 20,000 feet above them.”
    True, but none of these drone aircraft can take very much wind when it comes to taking off or landing. Hope they have several landing sites planned out. Shouldn’t be too difficult to arrange 3 or 4 across a wide area so they can go wherever the hurricane won’t be.

    With their range and endurance, they could operate from Kansas and still have a useful time on station. NASA designated several contingency shuttle recovery sites back in the day, several of which were commercial airports.

  27. Benjamin W,
    I have seen DOD estimates of the cost per hour for the SR 71, nearly an order of magnatude higher than the number you referenced, and in 1972 dollars

    Here are the NRO comparative stats on the two machines prepared after the 1967 flyoff. (SECDEF determined that the country could not afford to operate both systems and Pres. Johnson agreed with him.) As I recall, a special DOD group then considered which one to keep and decided in favor of the SR-71. CIA strongly objected; DCI appealed to the President but to no avail. A-12s recalled from Kadena in 1968 and placed in storage.

    These airplanes were expensive to build and to operate. Around 1972, SAC Hq calculated the flying hour cost of a single SR-71 at $250,000/h

    http://cryptome.org/2012/05/cia-sr71-a12.pdf

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