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Eye Of The Storm: NASA Drones Dive Into Hurricanes In Search Of Secrets

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- Drones built for surveillance are being converted into hurricane hunters. It's a NASA program operating south of Ocean City.

As Alex DeMetrick reports, it just sampled Hurricane Humberto.

When the Air Force donated Global Hawk surveillance drones to NASA, spy gear was replaced with scientific instruments designed to study severe storms and hurricanes.

Wednesday, one of those drones took off from NASA's Wallops Island facility in Virginia.

"Which will have a permanent ground station here. So Global Hawks will be a permanent part of our future here," said Shane Dover, Wallops Aircraft Office.

And the future is what these flights are about. Able to stay airborne for up to 30 hours, drones can travel further out into the Atlantic and stay longer than conventional aircraft.

This is what it saw in the middle of Hurricane Humberto: heat towers, cloud formations and rain--days before a manned aircraft could get inside the storm.

"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?" said Chris Naftel, Global Hawk Project.

And maybe solve a nagging problem. Science is good at predicting a hurricane's track, but not its intensity.

A sudden jump from a Category 2 to a 4 is life threatening. Work it out earlier, and:

"Fewer people are impacted by that," Naftel said.

While drones could make new science, they're also breaking ground for those who fly them.

"What makes these missions so exciting for us as pilots is that we're doing something brand new that's never been done before," a pilot said.

The drones flying out of the Eastern Shore will chase bad weather from Maine to the Caribbean.

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