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‘Rapid deployment’ hurricane drones based in St. Pete

Mark Parker



A crew launches a saildrone from the St. Petersburg coast to collect data on how hurricanes rapidly intensify. Photo provided.

Saildrone and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) officials are drastically increasing hurricane forecasting and monitoring efforts this year, and the company’s St. Petersburg outpost is playing a vital role.

Saildrone recently deployed 10 uncrewed surface vessels (USVs) from St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, Charleston, South Carolina, and St. Pete. While the company conducts its ocean mapping operations from the Innovation District’s Maritime and Defense Technology Hub, these drones will help researchers identify why some relatively mild tropical storms rapidly intensify into major hurricanes.

According to the June 28 announcement, hurricanes pose a greater threat to life and property than all other natural disasters. Named storms were responsible for over $1.1 million in damages and 6,697 deaths in the U.S. between 1980 and 2021.

Matt Womble, senior director of Ocean Data Programs, noted that Saildrone provides the only vessels capable of simultaneously collecting air and sea data inside a major hurricane.

“That data is very important because hurricanes derive much, if not all, of their energy from the ocean,” Womble explained. “And there’s a lot of dynamics that happen at the air-sea interface that contribute to the development and the growth of the storms.

“Saildrone has a unique platform to be able to go into these environments – some of the most inhospitable, worst environments you can imagine.”

A map showing Saildrone and NOAA’s 2023 mission area. Image provided.

Following previous successes over the last two years, the goal is to “get as many saildrones into hurricanes as possible.” The company deployed five in 2021, its first year hurricane hunting with NOAA.

One of its USVs withstood 100-foot waves and 140 mph winds as it navigated Hurricane Sam’s eyewall that year. That provided the first-ever live video footage from inside the eye of a Category 4 hurricane.

It also gathered invaluable information from the Atlantic Ocean’s surface, unreachable by “hurricane hunter” aircraft. Saildrone deployed seven USVs last year, which sailed through several named storms and Category 4 Hurricane Fiona.

The company recently launched 10, with one from St. Pete now patrolling the Gulf of Mexico. However, Saildrone and NOAA officials decided to implement something new this year: “Rapid Deployment Drones.”

Those are now ready to launch into approaching storms from the Maritime and Defense Technology Hub.

“We’ll be deploying those when NOAA sees a storm that is likely to develop in the Gulf, or enter the Gulf from the Atlantic, and most likely threaten the west coast of Florida,” Womble explained. “The reality is that we’re likely to see hurricanes this year.”

The goal is to position the USVs to collect data critical to better understanding “the processes that are driving the rapid intensification of hurricanes recently.” Saildrone and NOAA officials also hope that information will bolster forecasting capabilities.

Womble said Hurricane Ian, which rapidly intensified to a Category 5 before hitting the Southwest Florida coast in September 2022 as a Category 4, underscored the need for more accurate forecasts and earlier warnings. He said the deadliest hurricane to hit the state since 1935 was part of a growing trend in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic.

“And that has big implications for people that are in the path of the storms and how they make decisions about evacuating and protecting their lives and property in advance of these storms,” Womble added.

Matt Womble, director of ocean data programs for Saildrone, showcased a mission portal at the Maritime and Defense Technology Hub in 2022. Photo by Mark Parker.

The 12-vehicle fleet is Saildrone’s largest for a single mission. The USVs will transmit several data points in “near real-time,” including air temperature and relative humidity, barometric pressure, wind speed and direction, water temperature and salinity and wave height and timing to scientists at NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic & Meteorological Laboratory and the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory.

NOAA also utilizes its hurricane hunter airplanes, uncrewed aircraft systems, gliders, and other surface and sub-surface platforms. The organization will send collected data to the World Meteorological Organization’s Global Telecommunication System for use by 20 international forecasting agencies.

“Saildrone is proud to support this critical research being conducted by our long-time partners at NOAA,” said CEO Richard Jenkins in a prepared statement. “It is an understatement to say that the ocean is a vast place, and we know relatively little about it.”




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