Published: Aug. 19, 2001

Four miniature unmanned airplanes leased by University of Colorado at Boulder researchers and equipped with sophisticated meteorlogical instruments are buzzing through storms near Jacksonville, Fla., as faculty and students await a hurricane.

Known as aerosondes, the diminutive 30-pound planes are helping researchers monitor conditions like temperature, humidity and wind speed, said CU-Boulder aerospace engineering Professor Judith Curry. In addition, the tiny planes are packing lightweight video cameras to help researchers understand sea-surface changes during tropical storms. The flights - which began Aug. 16 -- will run through late September, according to Curry.

Although the aerospace engineering department owns three of the $35,000 planes, they are used only for research and development on campus. The four planes now flying in Florida are leased from Aerosonde Robotic Aircraft, Inc.

"We don't know much about sea-surface exchange with the atmosphere during tropical storms, especially the effect of the disturbed, foamy activity at the surface," said Curry, one of two CU-Boulder principal investigators on the project. The second is Professor Peter Webster of CU's Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences.

Curry and aerospace engineering graduate students Cory Dixon and Christian Eheim will be returning to Boulder on Aug. 22. The team will be replaced by CU aerospace graduate student Matt Allen and PAOS graduate student Brenda Mulac. As soon as a hurricane occurs, other CU team members will immediately fly to Florida.

While huge DC-8 aircraft will by flying over the hurricanes as part of a multi-agency project coordinated by NASA, the CU aerosondes will be flying right into the middle of the massive storms, said Curry. Because they can fly up to 1,500 miles on a gallon of fuel, the aerosondes may be flying missions as long as 24 hours, she said.

"We will be sending information from the aerosonde planes through a satellite system that will deliver it to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, which will be a first," Curry said.

The aerosondes most recently were used by CU-Boulder faculty and students to map coastal sea ice changes, warming and coastal erosion in the Arctic in April 2001.

CU-Boulder's aerosonde missions are expected to continue until 2006 with funding from the National Science Foundation.

The planes are produced by Aerosonde Robotic Aircraft with facilities in Victoria, Australia and Boulder. Jpeg images of the planes can be downloaded at: Photos courtesy Aerosonde Robotic Aircraft.

Video images of the aerosonde airplane research will be available from NASA's Steve Roy at (904) 542-1504 beginning on Thursday, Aug. 23.