The Global Hawk unmanned aircraft was designed for surveillance purposes to assist the U.S. military. NASA acquired several of these drones in recent years and are trading battlefield observations for scientific ones.

Last week, one of NASA’s Global Hawk drones flew around Tropical Storm Gaston. Data collected by the drone led NOAA’s National Hurricane Center to upgrade Gaston from a tropical storm to a Hurricane. It marks the first instance of real-time weather data from a NASA Global Hawk drone being used to upgrade a storm from tropical storm to a hurricane.

Gary Wick, a NOAA project scientist for the Global Hawk experiment, talked about the capabilities of the drone in a press release. “The NASA Global Hawk can fly over a tropical cyclone at 60,000 feet and provide a full three-dimensional picture of storm structure,” said Wick. “We are glad that our research can provide direct support to forecasters at the National Hurricane Center.”

NASA’s drone was armed with 84 dropsondes during its 24-hour flight. It was the 75th dropsonde deployed that showed the vital data indicating Gaston was intensifying. In the early morning hours last Thursday, the National Hurricane Center issued an advisory that Gaston had strengthened and packed estimated hurricane-force winds of 75 miles per hour.

Check out the flight path taking by the drone.

drone flight path in hurricane gaston

Here’s how some of the storm clouds looked from the Global Hawk.

storm clouds from NASA drone

Today, Gaston remains a hurricane with sustained winds of 105 miles per hour. Gaston won’t be a threat to the U.S., but could impact the Azores by Friday as a weak hurricane or strong tropical storm. Here’s the latest track forecast from NOAA.

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Hurricane Gaston path

NOAA’s SHOUT Program

Last week’s drone observation of Hurricane Gaston is part of NOAA’s Sensing Hazards with Operational Unmanned Technology, or SHOUT. The program is entering its second year of a three-year research project.

NOAA wants to see how drones can be used to help improve weather model forecasts, especially for weather events in oceanic areas. Think tropical storms, winter storms in the Pacific and Nor’easters and major flooding events.

Global Hawk being refueled

A crewmember refuels the Global Hawk drone. Yeah, that’s a bit bigger than my DJI Phantom 3.

Satellites already do a good job giving meteorologists the tools they need to help warn the general public about storms. But satellite data is full proof. There can be gaps. And NOAA wants to see how drones, like the Global Hawk, can fill these gaps.

Last week shows us that drones can assist in keeping close tabs on the strength of a tropical system. Hurricane hunters do an incredible job gathering data from tropical systems. But they can’t be in the air 100% of the time. If the Global Hawk continues to prove itself, it will give forecasters another valuable tool to keep closer tabs on storm systems.

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