Ocean drones launched from Jacksonville will collect first-of-its-kind hurricane data

Autonomous Saildrone Explorers launch from Fort George Island, Virgin Islands on Friday

In partnership with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Saildrone will go storm chasing in the Atlantic.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – When we think about drones, we often think of the ones we see or hear flying around in the air.

But Friday morning two aquatic autonomous Saildrone Explorers launched from Fort George Island that will storm chase in the Atlantic in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

To better understand the rapid intensification of severe weather systems, Saildrone is deploying five unmanned surface vehicles, or USVs, to study storms and collect ocean data where it’s never been collected before: the eye of a storm.

They will be at sea for three months, collecting the first-of-its-kind data from inside hurricanes.

“We have sensors we drop from planes that give you instantaneous measurements, but you don’t really have precise scientific measurements on the atmospheric and oceanic variable -- the fluxes, if you like,” explained Saildrone Founder & CEO Richard Jenkins.

California-based Saildrone has a fleet of USVs. They have a tall, hard-wing design to stand up to high wind conditions.

“We control them remotely via satellite. There are multiple antennas, multiple redundancies. We are hoping to have constant communication throughout a hurricane, but we have never tested satellite communication through a hurricane, so it will be a learning experience, but we are aiming to have full control and full real-time data during the storm as it passes,” Jenkins said.

The USVs are highly maneuverable, wind and solar-powered vehicles designed for long-range data collection missions. Saildrone USVs are the only autonomous vehicles that can collect meteorological and environmental data above and below the sea surface and withstand extreme winds during a hurricane.

“You’re sending them somewhere you wouldn’t send a human to risk their life,” Jenkins said. “These drones are designed to withstand 100 knots, more than 100 mph.”

The three other USVs are being launched Friday from the Virgin Islands.

The five drones will collect data in real-time, including water currents, temperatures, dissolved oxygen, barometric pressure, wind speed direction, wave height and wave periods, Jenkins explained. The three launched from the Virgin Islands will collect data as storms are born and the two launched from Jacksonville will collect data as the storms mature.

“We don’t know how to quantify the rate of change, so what you need is a really precise measurement to understand that rate of transfer of heat and moisture to the storm,” Jenkins said of why the data collection is necessary. “If we can do that, we can understand the intensity and better predict the landfall locations to better protect people onshore.”

The information will go directly to NOAA. The drones launched from Fort George Island will be retrieved from Jacksonville at the end of the 2021 Hurricane Season.

NOAA is predicting a 60% chance the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season will be above normal with 13 to 20 named storms. Half are expected to become hurricanes, three to five are expected to be major hurricanes, a category three or higher.

About the Author:

Zachery “Zach” Lashway anchors KPRC 2+ Now. He began at KPRC 2 as a reporter in October 2021.