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NASA using surplus military drones to investigate hurricanes

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Sept. 3, 2013: NASA's Global Hawk 871 departed from the runway at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Va.ap

NASA is now utilizing surplus military drones to investigate hurricanes from Maine to the Caribbean.

WJZ 13 in Baltimore reports the space agency launched a drone from its Wallops Island facility in Virginia on Wednesday in order to get a close-up look at Hurricane Humberto, still lingering off the Eastern seaboard.

“The purpose is to give people warning of what’s going to be happening. How strong is it going to be? Do I need to board up the house or not?” Chris Naftel of the Global Hawk Project told the CBS affiliate.

The U.S. Air Force donated the Global Hawk surveillance drones to NASA, which then replaced the drones’ spy gear with scientific instruments to examine severe storms, and specifically hurricanes.

“(We) will have a permanent ground station here. So Global Hawks will be a permanent part of our future here,” Shane Dover of the Wallops Aircraft Office told WJZ 13.

There are two questions on which NASA scientists primarily want the drone research to focus. One is what role thunderstorms within a hurricane play in its intensification. Researchers aren't sure if the thunderstorms are a driver of storm intensity or a symptom of it.

The other is what role the Saharan Air Layer plays in the tropical storm development. The Saharan Air Layer is a dry, hot, dusty layer of air from Africa. Scientists have been at odds with each other over whether it helps hurricanes strengthen or does the opposite. One school of thought is that the Saharan Air Layer provides energy for storms to grow, while others have suggested it is a negative influence on storm growth because of the effect the dry air has on wet storms.

"There's a bit of a debate in terms of how important it is, one way or the other," said Scott Braun, a research meteorologist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., who is the drone project's principal investigator.

This is the second year NASA has launched Global Hawks from the Eastern Shore of Virginia, a strategic location that allows drones to spend plenty of time studying storms shortly after they form off the coast of Africa or as they approach the Caribbean Sea or Gulf of Mexico.

This year's mission will end later this month, and the third and final year of the project's flights will start again next August. NASA officials hope three years of flights will give them enough data to begin answering their questions.

The drones are considered advantageous over manned aircraft because they can fly for much longer periods of time than traditional research aircraft and at much greater altitudes. 

Global Hawks can spend up to 28 hours in the air at a time and reach altitudes up to 12.3 miles, or roughly twice that of a typical commercial airliner.

By comparison, specially equipped P-3 Hurricane Hunter aircraft that fly directly into a storm typically do so at low altitudes of 1,000 to 10,000 feet. Researchers say having a broad overview of a storm can help them understand things such as whether air moving away from a storm helps it intensify.

"As a Hurricane Hunter goes through a storm, they get very detailed information," Paul Newman, deputy project scientist for the research mission, said. "Imagine that this (Global Hawk) will do kind of a cat scan of a hurricane, but Hurricane Hunters go in and it's like you're using a fine scalpel to look at the details of the patient, if you will."

Click for more from WJZ 13. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report