Wired reports that NASA's pair of unmanned Global Hawk aircraft, capable of flying up to 30 hours at a time, are assisting hurricane researchers with unprecedented data.
The aircraft was originally developed for the military, but were purchased by NASA who also oversees the Global Hawk program. The aircraft has been modified for atmospheric research by Northrop Grumman, who will also run and maintain them. Wired reports, "The airplanes are shared 50/50, with each organization getting half of the flight hours and providing half of the funding/manpower for operating and maintenance costs."
According to the article, "NASA flies first drone over hurricane,"
The aircraft are giving researchers a 3-D view of the temperature, waver vapor and cloud liquid water in the hurricane. Using a High-Altitude Monolithic Microwave Integrated Circuit Sounding Radiometer, or HAMSR in official NASA acronymese, the Global Hawk is able to look down into the eye of the storm to the sea surface and compare different layers in relatively high resolution and in real time.
Initially, hurricane observation flights were conducted from the Global Hawk's home base at the Dryden Flight Research Center --- located within Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California. This would limit the time any hurricane research planes could spend over a hurricane.
NASA plans to base both their aircraft on the East Coast during hurricane season. From this location, the Global Hawks will be able to cover to cover close to the entire area of the mid-Atlantic Ocean, original locations of the hurricanes. Spending 10 to 30 hours at a time, NASA will be able to watch the hurricanes develop and track them as they head towards North America.