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NASA robot planes unraveling hurricane mysteries

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Posted at 7:31 PM, Sep 11, 2013
and last updated 2013-09-11 22:14:18-04

It's a late-summer sunrise at the Wallops Island Flight Facility. In the distance, a pinpoint of white light brings out a handful of scientists who had, until moments ago, been cloistered in glass cages.

"It's way too high," one worries. "It's not going to be able to get down enough."

But NASA's graceful Global Hawk does get down perfectly without a sole aboard.

For the first time ever, NASA scientists are flying two robot planes from Wallops Island into storms and hurricanes deep in the Atlantic.

A pair of recycled military Global Hawks, once used to spy on enemies, is now crisscrossing the ocean to spy on weather.

Wallops Island on the tranquil Eastern Shore is the summer headquarters for NASA's remote-controlled hurricane hunters, a platoon of pilots, scientists and engineers trying to unravel a longstanding hurricane mystery.

Dr. Scott Braun wants to know why, when the meteorological ingredients are pretty much the same, some weather systems lumber around harmlessly while others spin into ferocious hurricanes. And he wants to know why some are content to wallow as weak storms while others rapidly ramp up, sometimes overnight. He's using two high-flying drones to figure it out.

"It's a fairly new technology, particularly when it comes to civilian use, and for scientific use," Braun said.

It's a technology steeped in controversy. Military drones blast enemies, civilian drones worry privacy advocates, and in Dinwiddie County just a few weeks ago, a drone crashed into a crowd watching a sports event.

"Unfortunately," Braun said, " 'drone' has taken on a very negative connotation.

One way he sidesteps that question is not to use the D-word.

"The first step to alleviate concerns about using drones is partly not to use the word, 'drones.' "

No matter what you call them, the pair of sleek white planes is the lynchpin of NASA's new hurricane research.

With a window of just a few weeks to study storms, when one brews in the Atlantic, the Global Hawk control room is fueled by coffee staffed around the clock.

Computers show the drone's track over the storm. A camera sends live pictures, and the Global Hawk's bevvy of scientific instruments, including probes with parachutes, go to work.

When it lands, researchers siphon data. When they have enough data, maybe several years' worth, they can better predict not just the path of a hurricane, but the power. That, Braun says, will save lives.

But when a plane is controlled only by computers, a computer crash is catastrophic. With the second drone on the runway and the escort plane in the air, blue screens fill the control center. That scrubs the mission. It's just as well. What's left of Tropical Storm Gabrielle is hardly worth examining. And in one of the quietest hurricane seasons in history, there's nothing else to see.

"There's a lot of manpower involved in this," Braun said. "And to not have storms we can fly, it has certainly been a challenge."

And just as the crews closed the hangars to store the drones awhile, the disorganized clouds that used to be Tropical Storm Gabrielle, came back to life. Out of nowhere, it grew once again into a meaningful storm and the drones are back over it.

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NASA using drones from Wallops Island to study hurricanes

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