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Robbie Hood
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Robbie Hood

Flying unmanned aircraft systems to improve weather and climate research

by Caroline Mosley (NOAA Research Communications)

As a young girl, Robbie Hood watched her father test NASA rocket engines for the Apollo missions in the rural Missouri landscape. It was during those formative years that NOAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) program director got her first glimpse of the thrill of a scientific career.

Today at NOAA, Hood oversees the use of unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, to improve weather and climate research, assess ecosystems, and improve forecasts. Hood explains how UAS can fill the gaps between satellite data and ground measurements. The former provides a snapshot of earthly occurrences at a low spatial resolution, while the latter may not be able to capture the scale of a weather event. For the next few months, Hood and her UAS team are using the unique observations from UAS to study the current El Niño in the Pacific Ocean.

“We are evaluating both the feasibility and cost of using UAS as observing systems that will fill data gaps and greatly add to NOAA’s mission.” said Hood.

Living in Missouri and Mississippi, Hood became fascinated with severe weather at a young age. After receiving a master’s in physical meteorology from Florida State University and focusing on storm observations, she began her career at NASA supporting weather research studies using aircraft. While at NASA, Hood honed her skills on how to use aircraft to test and calibrate instruments designed for satellites and participated in four NASA field experiments to study hurricanes both in the United States and abroad.

One of the favorite parts of her job at NASA and since coming to NOAA in 2008, Hood explains, is coordinating with a diverse group of scientists, engineers and pilots to discuss, develop and test new technology and instruments that can further our understanding of weather and climate.

“It’s an exciting time for hands-on meteorologists”

The current major El Niño provides an excellent opportunity for Hood and her team to test how UAS can provide crucial observations for large-scale weather events. Beginning in late January through March 2016, NOAA is conducting an intensive field campaign from the land, sea and air in the Pacific Ocean to study the warm phase of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle. UAS will contribute airborne observations that will cover the eastern Pacific and extratropical storms impacting the west coast. These high-resolution data can be used to better discern how the complex ENSO weather patterns impact United States climate.

As part of NOAA’s Rapid Response El Niño mission, the UAS program will lead the ongoing Sensing Hazards with Operational Unmanned Technology (SHOUT) project and deploy the NOAA-operated unmanned NASA Global Hawk aircraft. The NASA Global Hawk can fly for nearly 24 hours over the open ocean and will collect high-resolution meteorological measurements and deploy dropsondes during four research flights.

The measurements collected remotely by the NASA Global Hawk will then be compared with direct measurements from the dropsondes. Hood explains how this allows NOAA to better understand how UAS data collected remotely compares with direct field measurements and could validate using UAS more routinely during intensive field campaigns.

Hood is especially excited to work closely with NOAA’s National Weather Service (NWS) and put the real-time data collected by UAS into models to see if it can improve forecasts. This was accomplished for the first time in August 2015, when real-time weather data collected by the the NASA Global Hawk went directly into one of NOAA’s operational hurricane forecast models to assist in the forecast of Tropical Storm Erika.

These UAS measurements can provide better observations for high-impact weather over the ocean, fill the gaps between land and sea observations, and provide real-time data to scientists all over the world.

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    Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) - or "NOAA Research" - provides the research foundation for understanding the complex systems that support our planet. Working in partnership with other organizational units of the NOAA, a bureau of the Department of Commerce, NOAA Research enables better forecasts, earlier warnings for natural disasters, and a greater understanding of the Earth. Our role is to provide unbiased science to better manage the environment, nationally, and globally.


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