Last week, a 23-foot vessel sailed straight into the teeth of Hurricane Sam as the Category 4 storm whipped the Atlantic Ocean into a lather, kicking up 50-foot waves with its 120 mph winds.
The vessel in question was a crewless, remote-controlled creation that emerged from its dance with the violent tempest unscathed, having recorded the first-ever video from inside a major hurricane, Vimal Patel reports for the New York Times. The video, which is just under 30-seconds long, heaves and churns as massive swells generated by Hurricane Sam rock the vessel’s lens in all directions as curtains of rain and sea spray rip across its field of view.
The autonomous boat, called a Saildrone and designed by a company of the same name, was sent to gather data from inside the hurricane by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
“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,” Richard Jenkins, Saildrone founder and CEO, says in a statement.
Saildrone’s observations and measurements will help researchers infuse their hurricane models with new data that could help better understand storm development and ultimately improve forecasting.
“Using data collected by saildrones, we expect to improve forecast models that predict rapid intensification of hurricanes,” says NOAA oceanographer Greg Foltz in the statement. “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.”
The particular saildrone that intercepted Hurricane Sam is identified as SD 1045 and it’s part of a fleet of five designed to withstand the brutal conditions inside these storms. Prior iterations of Saildrone’s vessels, which look a bit like giant orange surfboards with sails, have survived the Arctic and Southern Ocean, but these hurricane saildrones needed to slim down an already seaworthy package to survive some of the fiercest winds and waves on Earth.
To accomplish this the company shrank the vessel’s sail-like structure, which is solid rather than cloth, making it shorter and more compact. Then, they lopped off one of two instrument-carrying arms that extend out from either side of the sail on the standard model. These changes increased the winds the new model could tolerate from 60 mph to 115 mph, reports Matthew Cappucci of the Washington Post.
NOAA and Saildrone deployed the fleet of five hurricane-class vessels in the Atlantic’s “hurricane belt” in the summer months leading up to this year’s tropical storm season. Though the saildrones can go about one to two mph, SD 1045 got lucky and was in just the right spot to be engulfed by Hurricane Sam.
Speaking with the Times, Foltz says that with another month to go in peak hurricane season, his team hopes “to get another Saildrone into a hurricane and get more valuable measurements this year.”