A Robot Rides Out Sandy, Gathering Data to Predict Storm Intensity

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likely become. “It’s not just the upper millimeter of water that counts,” says Lu. “As soon as a hurricane starts to go over an area, it stirs up the water, which is a different temperature below, and it quickly gets mixed up and the water cools down. If you know how much it’s cooled down, you know how much energy has gone into the hurricane.”

Mercury was not one of the Wave Gliders designed to study hurricanes, but it happened to be in a position—about 100 miles offshore from Toms River, NJ—that allowed Liquid Robotics controllers to steer it into the path of Sandy. The craft collected data throughout the storm, transmitting it back to Liquid Robotics every 30 minutes via a radio connection to the Iridium satellite network. “You can see the giant drop in pressure. You can also see the wind picking up and changing direction in huge gusts. It’s difficult to say that something is significant from one data point, but what we have shown that we have the capacity to measure what we want to know.”

A subsea view of the Wave Glider

A subsea view of the Wave Glider

While the current hurricane season is (hopefully) winding down, Liquid Robotics plans to study more storms next season, and to send robots into Southern Hemisphere typhoons and cyclones. “Next year we would like to increase the coverage and work closely with NOAA to incorporate this data into the hurricane prediction models,” Lu says.

Lu, an electrical engineer by training, joined Liquid Robotics in 2011 after several years as leader of the Advanced Projects Group at Google, overseeing imaging for Google Maps and Google Earth, among other projects. Before Google, Lu spent 12 years with NASA, where he flew on two Space Shuttle missions and one Russian Soyuz launch and spent six months aboard the International Space Station.

“I’ve spent a lot of time looking down into hurricanes from above, and they are unbelievable,” Lu says. “What is amazing to me is that you can run one of these little robots through them and they come out the other end unscathed and can transmit data right through the middle of the storm. This is kind of game-changing, because we need to learn better what threats are coming our way.”

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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