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Video: Saildrone Drives Unmanned Boat Into the Middle of Hurricane Sam

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Restricted visibility: the view from SD 1045 (Saildrone / NOAA)

Published Sep 30, 2021 7:04 PM by The Maritime Executive

Autonomous-sailboat company Saildrone has captured what it believes to be the first video footage taken by an unmanned vessel inside of a hurricane at sea. 

The U.S. Air Force Reserve's Hurricane Hunters squadron regularly releases video taken inside hurricanes at high altitude, and bystanders and storm-chasers inevitably take video of hurricanes at landfall, but the footage released by NOAA and Saildrone appears to be unique: an eye-level perspective on hurricane conditions at sea. It will be all too familiar to seafarers who have been through hurricane-force storms in the Gulf of Alaska or the Southern Ocean: towering waves, foam, heavy spray and plenty of rolling. 

“Saildrone is going where no research vessel has ever ventured, sailing right into the eye of the hurricane, gathering data that will transform our understanding of these powerful storms,” said Richard Jenkins, Saildrone founder and CEO. “After conquering the Arctic and the Southern Ocean, hurricanes were the last frontier for Saildrone survivability. We are proud to have engineered a vehicle capable of operating in the most extreme weather conditions on earth.”

Operating on behalf of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, Saildrone Explorer SD 1045 was directed into the middle of Hurricane Sam. SD 1045 is now driving through 50-foot waves and winds in excess of 120 mph to collect critical scientific data. In the process, NOAA says, it is opening up a new and important view of hurricane conditions.

SD 1045 was fitted with a special-purpose “hurricane wing” for extreme wind, and it is collecting real-time observations for hurricane prediction models. The data will help inform studies of how large tropical cyclones grow and intensify.

“Using data collected by saildrones, we expect to improve forecast models that predict rapid intensification of hurricanes,” said Greg Foltz, a NOAA scientist. “Rapid intensification, when hurricane winds strengthen in a matter of hours, is a serious threat to coastal communities. New data from saildrones and other uncrewed systems that NOAA is using will help us better predict the forces that drive hurricanes and be able to warn communities earlier.”

SD 1045 is one of a fleet of five “hurricane” saildrones that have been operating in the Atlantic Ocean during this hurricane season, gathering new data on extreme weather without putting human lives at risk.