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New mission for the Global Hawk
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New mission for the Global Hawk

NOAA is testing data collected by unmanned aircraft to improve weather forecast operations

Updated Friday, Sept. 12, 2014

For the last five years, NOAA has teamed up with NASA to fly NASA’s Global Hawk unmanned aircraft to get an inside look at how hurricanes form and intensify over the Atlantic.

The NASA-led project called the Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel mission is demonstrating the ability of the Global Hawk to fly over hurricanes to gather continuous weather data on flights that are longer in duration than possible with manned aircraft. The unmanned aircraft can also reach areas too far away for manned aircraft based in the U.S.

On Thursday evening, Sept. 11, pilots from NASA and NOAA launched Global Hawk from NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops, Va. The unmanned aircraft headed out on a 26 hour flight to gather weather data off the coast of West Africa and to return Friday evening.

In the next three years, NOAA will take the next step with the Global Hawk, leading a new experiment and continuing its important collaboration with NASA. Drawing on technology and expertise honed in the current mission, NOAA will assess the feasibility of regular operations of Global Hawk to improve day-to-day forecasts of severe storms forming over the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans.

This new experiment, funded by the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013, is driven by two major needs. Our nation must continue to push the boundaries of science to increase lead times from days to weeks for severe tropical storms, floods and other forms of severe weather. NOAA’s push to improve lead times and find earlier clues to when a storm rapidly strengthens are key to saving lives, protecting billions in property, and enabling communities to better prepare. In short, they help build a Weather Ready Nation.

The second goal is to develop a reliable observations tool to augment crucial weather observations from satellites, and in the event of an unplanned gap in satellite coverage, provide severe weather forecast information.

“Satellites provide crucial information in broad swaths greater than 100 kilometers while the more pinpointed information transmitted from sensors carried and launched from the Global Hawk can give us a finer resolution picture of weather in narrower swaths than 60 kilometers,” said Robbie Hood, director of NOAA’s Unmanned Aircraft System Program and lead scientist for the new Global Hawk experiment. “Flying a Global Hawk with weather observing sensors over a storm is like putting the storm under a microscope. The higher resolution aircraft data allow us to see more clearly inside a storm, and capture detailed changes in wind speed and intensity. This can help us better understand a storm’s development and hopefully produce a better forecast of downstream effects. ”

The three-year experiment, called Sensing Hazards with Operational Unmanned Technology, or SHOUT, will study whether the Global Hawk observations help improve weather forecasting of storms at sea as well as what the cost of Global Hawk operations would be for NOAA. Scientists have started the experiment by using computer simulations of Global Hawk data for testing. Next, they will collect actual Global Hawk observations by flying over oceanic storms.  

The first flight by the NASA Global Hawk in the experiment will take off during hurricane season 2015 over the Atlantic Ocean. In October and November 2015, the Global Hawk will fly in severe storms off Alaska. In 2016, the Global Hawk will fly in storms in the Pacific. In flights of up to 26 hours, the Global Hawk can gather continuous weather data on wind, temperature, and humidity from an altitude of approximately 60,000 feet above the Earth’s surface, more than 15,000 feet higher than most manned airplanes operate. This data and simulated data will be plugged into forecast models to evaluate whether it substantially improves the accuracy of severe weather forecasts.

The team working on the experiment includes scientists from across NOAA, including its Unmanned Aircraft System Program, Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Lab, Earth Systems Research Lab, NOAA Cooperative Institute (CI) for Marine and Atmospheric Studies, CI for Research in the Atmosphere and CI for Research in Environmental Sciences. NOAA Corps officers with the Office of Marine and Aviation Operations will continue to remotely operate the NASA Global Hawk. NOAA’s Weather Service and Satellite Service are part of the team evaluating the feasibility and cost of using unmanned systems in NOAA National Weather Service operations. NASA scientists and personnel will also participate and contribute their Global Hawks. All data will be shared.

For more information, please contact Monica Allen, director of public affairs at NOAA Research,       301-734-1123 or by email at

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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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