NASA is adding a second drone to monitor hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean this summer in what is expected to be a strong storm season.
The agency will use two unmanned Global Hawk aircraft to monitor hurricanes and tropical storms between Aug. 20 and Sept. 23, it announced Wednesday.
Global Hawks have traditionally been used as surveillance aircraft by the military and are always unarmed. NASA's Global Hawks are retired aircraft from the Department of Defense.
"With NASA, we've learned to fly [drones] as a research platform that can be directed in real time," says Robbie Hood, the unmanned aerial systems program officer at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which works with NASA on the project.
"We're taking Global Hawks, ripping out the top secret stuff and putting scientific payloads on it. We're having it move around with the weather."
Hood says that drones will "revolutionize NOAA's observing strategies" on a level "comparable to the introduction of satellite and radar assets."
Unlike satellites, some of which orbit the planet only a couple times a day, a Global Hawk can follow a storm for up to 28 hours at a time, allowing scientists to get more data than they can with a satellite. The drones will be piloted from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.
According to Scott Braun, who runs the program, called the Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel, the second drone will be able to gather additional information the first one wasn't able to get in 2012.
"The advantage this year over 2012 is that the second aircraft will measure eyewall and rainband winds and precipitation, something we didn't get to do last year," Braun said in a statement. "In addition, just as we did in 2012, the first aircraft will examine the large-scale environment that tropical storms form in and move through and how that environment affects the inner workings of the storms."
On May 23, NOAA said it was expecting an active hurricane season, which typically runs from June 1 through early October, though Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in late October. The agency says there is about a 70 percent chance of having at least 13 named storms and it is predicting three to six "major hurricanes" that are category 3 or higher.
"This year, oceanic and atmospheric conditions in the Atlantic basin are expected to produce more and stronger hurricanes," Gerry Bell, the lead seasonal hurricane forecaster with NOAA, said in a statement.