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Researchers Hoping Drone Boats Will Help Make Hurricane Forecasts Clearer, More Accurate

JACKSONVILLE (CBSMiami/AP) — Federal government researchers are hoping the key to making hurricane forecasts suddenly clearer and more accurate just floated out to sea a week ago from Jacksonville.

Drone boats, looking like orange surfboards with wings, will send back data that, with time, potentially gives researchers insights into helping coastal communities stay safe.

That said, for the next three months, the autonomous unmanned vessels will be relaying measurements of heat exchanges between the ocean and atmosphere — the fuel that strengthens hurricanes — that before now had to be collected in person.

"We have so few," said Greg Foltz, an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Foltz, who normally works in South Florida, was at Fort George Island Marina with employees of Saildrone, a California drone boat company that calls itself "the world's leading collector of in situ data via uncrewed vehicle."

Saildrone launched two 23-foot Explorer drones that will travel corridors of the Atlantic Ocean through October. Their paths are meant to complement the routes of three other Explorers released this month in the U.S. Virgin Islands, creating a web of coverage in heart of hurricane territory.

Explorers are slow, moving no more than a few miles per hour on their wind-powered propulsion systems.

But the idea is for the drones to work continuously, collecting data about normal ocean conditions in categories ranging from currents, temperatures, wind speeds and barometric pressure to dissolved oxygen, carbon levels and wave heights.

When a hurricane develops, the drones are designed to be able to steer straight into it, recording the storm with high-resolution cameras mounted on wings built to withstand punishing winds and waves that can weigh hundreds of tons.

Vessels with crews regularly leave the paths of hurricanes to avoid disasters like the 2015 sinking of the cargo ship El Faro, which killed 33 mariners sailing from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico.

Between the Explorers' everyday readings and data collected in the storm, boosters expect the drones to give hurricane researchers new insights that can't be gathered from hurricane-hunting surveillance planes.

"All we can measure from planes is pressure," said Saildrone founder and CEO Richard Jenkins, a British-born engineer who was dockside Friday, untying lines that moored the Explorers until they were ready to be towed out to sea.

The drones will work in tandem with underwater "gliders" that NOAA uses to track water conditions as deep as 1,000 feet below the surface, Foltz said. By gathering information at surface level and far beneath, scientists are hoping to have a fuller picture of what happens in the water column during hurricane season.

Explorers have been used before in harsh settings including winter seas off the Pacific Northwest and a trip measuring more than 13,500 miles to circumnavigate Antarctica.

The drones have operated at sea for longer than a year before, but NOAA officials said the three-month window was chosen to get the best results within their $1.1 million contract with Saildrone.

The drones are part of a fleet of unmanned vessels the company is promoting for work including mapping the ocean floor and maintaining quiet surveillance in areas vulnerable to foreign fishing fleets.

That vessels could be useful to Northeast Florida on other ways, too, said U.S. Rep. John Rutherford, R-Fla., joined the Explorer launch and noted the craft can also carry equipment for measuring fish biomass, a way to track the condition of offshore fisheries.

(© Copyright 2021 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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