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An ocean drone launched from St. Petersburg into Hurricane Idalia. Here’s what it saw.

A saildrone research vehicle recorded 23-foot waves in the path of the major hurricane.
 
A remote ocean drone, dubbed the Saildrone Explorer, launched from St. Petersburg before Hurricane Idalia smashed into Florida's Big Bend. It captured this dramatic footage inside the powerful Category 4 storm.
A remote ocean drone, dubbed the Saildrone Explorer, launched from St. Petersburg before Hurricane Idalia smashed into Florida's Big Bend. It captured this dramatic footage inside the powerful Category 4 storm. [ Courtesy of Saildrone and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ]
Published Sept. 12, 2023|Updated Sept. 15, 2023

One day before Hurricane Idalia smashed into Florida’s Big Bend region, a bright orange ocean drone crossed paths with the major hurricane in a turbulent Gulf of Mexico.

Shaped like a sailboat and stretching 23 feet long, the unmanned research vehicle, dubbed a saildrone, was a long way from its home in St. Petersburg. Roughly 200 nautical miles from Idalia’s eye on Aug. 29, as an angry sea tossed and toiled, the vehicle began recording video.

The footage from the drone, released this week by federal meteorologists and California-based data company Saildrone Inc., offers a dramatic look into an environment scarcely seen by the human eye: Waves towering nearly 23 feet tall rolled violently as Idalia’s winds gusted to nearly 100 mph. The stunning scenes and data captured from the storm could help improve future hurricane forecasting.

“While hurricane track forecasting has steadily improved in recent years, predicting rapid intensification is still a significant challenge,” said Cristina Castillo, the company’s senior program manager. Rapid intensification is when hurricane wind speeds jump at least 35 mph over a 24-hour period.

Hurricane Idalia rapidly intensified from 75 mph to 130 mph before landfall as it churned toward the Big Bend, and there’s a growing body of research showing that rapid intensification is happening more often with climate change.

Federal ocean scientists have plenty of tools to study cyclones, from moored buoys and airplanes to underwater gliders and floats. But until recently, a crucial piece of the puzzle was missing. What happens at the surface, where the wind meets water? Saildrone is now working directly with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to answer that question.

“The key here is we can steer these saildrones into the strongest parts of hurricanes and get measurements that nothing else can,” said Greg Foltz, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration oceanographer and science lead for the agency’s Saildrone hurricane team.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is using 12 unmanned saildrones during the 2023 hurricane season. Seven are offshore of the U.S. Virgin Islands, two are off Charleston, South Carolina, and one is in the Gulf of Mexico off St. Petersburg. Two saildrones are on standby and ready to be deployed at a moment's notice, according to company spokesperson Jenn Virskus.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is using 12 unmanned saildrones during the 2023 hurricane season. Seven are offshore of the U.S. Virgin Islands, two are off Charleston, South Carolina, and one is in the Gulf of Mexico off St. Petersburg. Two saildrones are on standby and ready to be deployed at a moment's notice, according to company spokesperson Jenn Virskus. [ Courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Saildrone ]

The government agency started working with Saildrone in 2015 with a mission into the Bering Sea, west of Alaska, to study retreating sea ice. In 2021, during the company’s first year tracking hurricanes, an ocean drone captured for the first time video footage inside Category 4 Hurricane Sam.

Now, federal ocean scientists are using 12 unmanned saildrones during the 2023 hurricane season. The vehicles are strategically placed in areas where hurricanes have historically crossed most often, Foltz said.

Seven of the drones are offshore of the U.S. Virgin Islands, two are off Charleston, South Carolina, and one is wandering the Gulf of Mexico offshore of St. Petersburg. Two saildrones are on standby and ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice, according to company spokesperson Jenn Virskus.

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In mid-June, in anticipation of a possibly busy hurricane season, the company launched a vehicle from its ocean mapping headquarters and operations center in St. Petersburg’s innovation district bordering Bayboro Harbor. Using satellite communication to steer the drone at a maximum speed of 9 mph, it can take a saildrone up to two months to reach its destination, Foltz said.

A Saildrone is seen during a June media preview in Lakeland. A Saildrone launched from St. Petersburg captured footage from Hurricane Idalia.
A Saildrone is seen during a June media preview in Lakeland. A Saildrone launched from St. Petersburg captured footage from Hurricane Idalia. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

When the camera started rolling in the middle of Hurricane Idalia, the drone was roughly 125 nautical miles southwest of St. Petersburg.

“Idalia was an interesting one, because it formed kind of quickly and we didn’t have a lot of time to prepare,” Foltz said. “Fortunately, we had a saildrone that was already in a really good position in the eastern Gulf, kind of sitting there, so we just had to move it and fine-tune the position.”

After gathering footage from Hurricane Idalia, the research team switched gears in recent days and is currently placing three drones into Hurricane Lee in the northern Atlantic.

“In the past week or so it’s been pretty much nonstop activity,” Foltz said.