FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - They don't look much like boats, or robots for that matter. Yet a small fleet of crewless watercraft are to be sent right into the paths of tropical storms for the first time this year with an important mission: Collect valuable ocean and atmospheric data that should improve hurricane forecasts.
"We want to obtain swift and continuous data from the eye of the storm for several days, which is very difficult to get in real time," said Justyna Nicinska, a program manager with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Two different models of the aquatic drones will be launched into hurricane-prone areas, likely near Puerto Rico and Key West. Both models will be satellite-linked to transmit the data they collect back to computers at the National Hurricane Center west of Miami.
Speedboats they are not.
One model, called EMILY, at 5 feet long, looks a bit like a bulky water scooter and tops out at about 7 mph. Equipped with a tiny gasoline-powered engine, it's launched when a hurricane is about 300 miles away and can remain at sea for up to 10 days. Then it must be retrieved, or else it will run out of marine fuel.
The other, called Wave Glider, is 8 feet long and looks more like a surfboard than a surface craft. Propelled by the motion of the waves, it plods along at about 2 mph. It will have the ability to remain on the high seas for months until a storm passes by.
Both robot craft are loaded with instruments to capture wind, water and atmospheric measurements at the ocean's surface. The Wave Glider also carries a video camera and EMILY a high-definition camera that takes still photos.
By observing hurricanes from the surface, the unmanned vessels will be able to record how water heat fuels a storm and how a storm meshes with the atmosphere - low-level interactions that high-flying hurricane hunter aircraft are unable to capture.
"The water vehicles can gather data in a storm that can't be gathered safely in any other way," said Alan Leonardi, deputy director of NOAA's Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory in Miami.
NOAA hopes to deploy two Wave Gliders and one EMILY during the 2012 Atlantic storm season, which lasts until Nov. 30. If they encounter a hurricane, both models should be able to ride out the giant waves and howling winds and be used again, officials said.
The Wave Gliders cost more than $100,000 apiece, but NOAA is being allowed to use them on a test basis this year without paying Liquid Robotics, the Sunnyvale, Calif., company that manufactures them, Leonardi said.
NOAA has purchased 10 of the EMILY models from Hydronalix Inc., of Sahaurita, Ariz., for about $30,000 apiece. However, it plans to use only two or three of them for hurricane research, said Nicinska, who is with NOAA's Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research in Silver Spring, Md.
The other EMILYs will have other tasks, such as monitoring marine sanctuaries and habitats and mapping coral reefs, she said.
If the robotic boats are successful this year in gleaning information about the inner workings of tropical systems, more will likely be purchased and the program expanded, Leonardi said.
Although both models can be launched right from shore, they likely will be given a lift by a NOAA ship to the area where they will hunt for storms. Both will be remote-controlled via satellite.
In the case of the Wave Gliders, an operator at the Liquid Robotics command center will direct the boats to a hurricane-prone area, using GPS coordinates. The Wave Glider can then remain in the water for months, Leonardi said.
"You can put it out there at the start of hurricane season and let it loiter out there all season," he said.
The Wave Glider is propelled by the up and down motion of the waves, which is converted into forward thrust, generated by a series of vanes under the main platform, said Kyle Vanderlugt, Liquid Robotics director of program development.
The 250-pound boat has two solar panels to power the weather instruments, and an umbilical cord that extends 21 feet down to take underwater readings.
EMILY can be remote-controlled from shore or pre-programmed to aim for a specific destination, Nicinska said. The 150-pound vessel is powered by an engine with less than 2 horsepower and equipped with a 10-gallon fuel tank.
EMILY, an acronym for Emergency Integrated Life Saving Lanyard, initially was developed to help lifeguards quickly get to a swimmer in trouble. NOAA decided to "take it a step farther" and convert it to a hurricane scout craft, Nicinska said.
When they intercept storms, both small vessels are engineered to detect and report wind direction and speed, humidity, barometric pressure, sea surface temperatures and salinity.
While that information should help improve track forecasts, the main goal is to improve intensity projections and better anticipate when a storm might rapidly strengthen, Leonardi said.
The robotic boats will complement NOAA's other tools for collecting tropical storm data, including its WP-3 Orion hurricane hunter aircraft, a Gulfstream G-IV jet and a NASA unmanned Global Hawk jet.
"The whole point is get observations in areas you don't normally get them," Nicinska said.
)2012 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
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