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Into the eye of Hurricane Matthew

With unmanned aircraft, experts get inside look at powerful storm

NOAA scientist Paul Reasor holds Coyote, an unmanned aircraft that flies into severe storms to collect weather data for meteorologists. (NOAA photo)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is using a Raytheon-built unmanned aerial vehicle to fly into Hurricane Matthew and provide real-time, potentially life-saving data from inside the powerful storm as it barrels up the coast of the southeastern United States.

Researchers have launched the UAVs from NOAA's WP-3 hurricane hunter aircraft, and are relaying the data directly to the hurricane center to better understand the storm's intensity and direction.

"Our goal with Coyote is to improve basic understanding of a critical region of the storm," said Dr. Joe Cione, a hurricane researcher at NOAA's Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory and chief scientist of the Coyote program. "Coyote enables us to collect data that we hope leads to improvements in the numerical models that are responsible for predicting intensity change."

Experts from Raytheon, NOAA and the National Hurricane Center have been working together to develop the forecasting capabilities of the UAVs, originally developed for military use. While traditional weather instruments parachute from a plane and capture only a snapshot of humidity, wind speed and other factors, Coyote's winged design enables it to linger and return to certain areas for more measurements.

The system can fly for more than an hour, at least 50 miles from its host aircraft, and at low altitudes that would be unsafe for the P-3 to attempt.

"Raytheon technology is playing a key role in enhancing hurricane researchers' understanding of these storms, and opening new avenues to help NOAA improve intensity prediction models," said Dr. Thomas Bussing, Raytheon vice president of Advanced Missile Systems. "These expendable UAVs, originally developed for military use, are now helping to deliver vital information about potentially deadly storms to help those in harm's way."

The system is a recent addition to Raytheon’s family of high-tech weather forecasting technology, including the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite instrument aboard NOAA’s Suomi NPP spacecraft, and the Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System, a powerful analytics tool that helps meteorologists make sense of the massive amounts of weather data that modern sensors collect.

Breaking the boundaries

Coyote solves a problem that has long limited forecasters’ ability to tell how hard a hurricane will hit. The secret behind the storm's punch lies in what is known as the “boundary layer” – a low-altitude area that includes the surface of the ocean.

“That’s where the energy is extracted from the ocean to the atmosphere,” said Joe Cione, a NOAA hurricane researcher. “Unfortunately, it is too difficult for us to go with manned aircraft to fly down there.”

The best way – until now – was to use small, expendable sensors called dropsondes that plummet out of a plane and take quick measurements on their short-lived fall to the surface.

Coyote takes a different approach. It rides aboard the P-3 inside a three-foot-long, five-inch-wide tube called a sonobuoy. When the plane gets close enough to the storm, the tube drops out of a chute, and Coyote spreads its wings and springs into action.

Clouds swirl at the eye of Hurricane Edouard in 2014. The storm marked the first use of Raytheon's Coyote unmanned aerial system as a weather-forecasting instrument. (NOAA Photo)

Coyote takes off

This is Coyote's second deployment into a hurricane. The first came in 2014, when NOAA launched four of the UAVs into Hurricane Edouard, a Category 3 storm. Scientists on board the P-3 received meteorological data in both the eye of the storm and the surrounding eye wall.

Engineers at Raytheon and the NOAA Aircraft Operations Center have upgraded Coyote’s sensor systems and improved its communications package to allow it to talk to the plane over longer distances, said Andrew Osbrink, Raytheon’s Coyote program manager.

“The P-3 will be able to place the Coyote in the storm and continue on its mission without stopping or doing anything related to Coyote and continue doing the rest of their hurricane mission, undisturbed, and still receiving Coyote data at all times,” he said in a previous interview. “This is a much better and much more efficient use of time and resources.”

For Cione and his colleagues, Coyote is a critical tool that allows them to accomplish their mission.

“At the end of the day," Cione said, "my job is to use science, knowledge and my abilities to save lives and protect property."

This document does not contain Technical Data or Technology controlled under either the U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations or the U.S. Export Administration Regulations. E16-7VXC

Last Updated: 01/18/2017

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