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A sea-going drone zipped through a hurricane’s eyewall and into the Guinness Book of World Records

The Guinness Book of World Records usually prompts images of human achievements or extremes of the natural world.

But more recently, an uncrewed surface vehicle — think of an extra-large sailboard replete with scientific gear — managed to get itself listed in the popular British reference book for doing something that it was designed to do: Experience hurricane conditions.

The vehicle, known as Saildrone Explorer SD 1045, made global headlines when it spent 24 hours inside category 4 Hurricane Sam in September 2021, delivering the world’s first video footage from inside a major hurricane as it surged across the Atlantic.

As it passed through the storm’s eyewall, SD 1045 measured 109.83 knots or 126.4 mph of wind speed, which officially has been determined to be the “highest wind speed recorded by an uncrewed surface vehicle,” a new entry in the 2024 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records.

Cristina Castillo, senior program manager for ocean data at Saildrone Ocean research, said the data SD 1045 collected was invaluable.

“The ultimate goal of the hurricane mission in the Atlantic was to gather data from within multiple storms, as they developed to really help scientists understand why some storms rapidly intensify,” she said. “So that’s a data point in understanding why some hurricanes intensify so quickly.”

Castillo said the USV’s are special. “One of the reasons researchers are so interested in utilizing sail drones is that we’re the only platform that you can really sail directly into a hurricane or a strengthening storm to collect data right at that surface interface. And so we’re really helping to complete profile observations from 10,000 feet in the air to thousands of feet below the ocean surface. I also want to point out that while hurricane track forecasting has steadily improved, predicting that rapid intensification is still a challenge and saildrone data will really help improve hurricane forecast models that will hopefully lead to better early warning systems for coastal communities.”

SD 1045 sailed into Hurricane Sam in September 2021 and sent back this image.

A drone sailed into Hurricane Sam and sent back this image.

The fleet of drones has been hard at work gathering information, she said.

“We’ve had a very successful hurricane season. So far, we’ve actually intercepted hurricane Franklin with three saildrones as it moved northward,” Castillo said. “And we also intercepted Idalia with four saildrones, one that went through the eyewall of the Idalia before it made landfall in Florida, and two more made observations after the storm moved east into the Atlantic. So it’s been very successful from our perspective.”

The record-setting SD 1045 was also redeployed this summer — one of 12 set out to gather data — and will be stationed off the coast of South Carolina for the duration of the mission.

“Off the coast of South Carolina is a particularly complex area of the ocean with relatively shallow waters combined with the strong, warm currents of the Gulf Stream that supply energy to a storm. When hurricanes go over these warm waters, they often intensify, potentially right before they make landfall, so it’s really important to understand how the ocean interacts with the storms in this area,” said Greg Foltz, a NOAA oceanographer and one of the mission’s principal investigators.

Battling massive waves and winds over 100 mph, SD 1045 not only survived Hurricane Sam intact but collected important data about the physical interactions between the ocean and atmosphere that revealed new insights about hurricane intensification.

Typically, strong winds mix up colder water from below, cooling the ocean and limiting the heat energy that intensifies a storm. However, the real-time data from SD 1045 revealed that the ocean wasn’t cooling. Fresh water, likely emanating from the Amazon River, may have been keeping the surface of the ocean warm, fueling the hurricane.

“SD 1045 sailing through the eye of Hurricane Sam was really a seminal moment for this field campaign with NOAA, proving that we could sail into a major hurricane and deliver data in near real time to scientists working to improve hurricane forecasting,” Matt Womble, Sr. Director of Ocean Data Programs, said. “To redeploy SD 1045 this year for the same mission further demonstrates the endurance, durability, and reliability of the saildrone platform.”

Officials from the California-based company said the Atlantic hurricane mission was part of ongoing NOAA research into how and why some relatively mild tropical storms rapidly intensify into major hurricanes. That can make the storm particularly destructive when it happens just before landfall.

The data collected will be archived by NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS) and sent by NOAA to the Global Telecommunication System (GTS) of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), where it is available for the world’s major forecast centers—some 20 agencies worldwide, including NOAA.

More recently, observations from SD 1045 as Tropical Storm Idalia passed over South Carolina were included by The National Hurricane Center in its August 30 bulletin.

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WGCU is your trusted source for news and information in Southwest Florida. We are a nonprofit public service, and your support is more critical than ever. Keep public media strong and donate now. Thank you.