That plane you see flying overhead at the beach this fall just might be a robot.

Just as drone aircraft are increasingly being used for military and law enforcement surveillance missions, unmanned planes are now being deployed for scientific purposes, specifically for looking at hurricanes.

For the first time, NASA has sent a robot plane -- called a "Global Hawk" -- this month from the East Coast to study hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean.

So far, the plane has spied on Hurricanes Leslie and Nadine, neither of which came anywhere near the USA, NASA reports. The full mission, called the "Hurricane Severe Storm Sentinel Mission," or HS3, will be going through mid-October.

One plane is in operation, with another one on the way.

The Global Hawk can fly above 60,000 feet, which is nearly twice as high as a commercial airliner: "The plane can fly at very high altitudes above the storm, in hazardous conditions," says NASA research meteorologist Scott Braun, the mission chief.

Typical hurricane hunter reconnaissance planes only fly at altitudes of 12,000 feet or lower, he notes.

At 60,000 feet, the Hawks are actually way above the storms, which allows the drone's sensitive equipment to study the hurricane down to sea level.

This inhospitable environment would be difficult for pilots in manned planes: "For instance, a pilot would have to wear a full spacesuit at those altitudes, where fatigue would also be a factor," Braun adds.

Typically, the time that a pilot could spend during such a difficult activity in the confined space of a plane would be about 8-10 hours before fatigue sets in, he says. In fact, the drone plane can fly as far as 12,600 miles -- half the circumference of Earth -- for periods of up to 31 hours.

It can fly from the East Coast of the USA all the way to Africa and back, at speeds of up to 380 mph.

"Historically, when we collect science data from an aircraft platform, we only acquire small snapshots from each flight due to limited aircraft flight duration," project manager Marilyn Vasques says.

"With prior approval of almost 50 countries, the Global Hawk's long duration enables science to cover vast distances from Virginia to Puerto Rico to Africa and back. Data can be streamed back to the scientists in real time, enabling the flight to focus on specific areas of interest."

"We're trying to look at which aspects of the environment control the development and intensification of hurricanes," Braun says.
Specifically, one of the Hawk's missions is to study how dust from the Sahara Desert, known as the Saharan Air Layer affects hurricanes.
Strong winds can blow dust from the Sahara all the way across the Atlantic.

This dry, dusty air can impact how powerful a hurricane becomes, Braun reports, although this remains controversial among scientists. Some studies have shown that this windy, dusty air helps hurricanes by creating the small whirls of air that form them, while others show that it hinders it, since dry air and hurricanes don't mix.

The plane is operated by pilots in ground-control stations at Wallops Island, Va., and Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. The mission is scheduled to continue through the next two hurricane seasons.

"This is a project of global significance," NASA's Bernadette Luna says. "Our planet is changing. With the data from this mission, modelers will improve their modeling techniques. We hope to learn what makes a hurricane intensify, and better predict if it will intensify. That tells people how to respond."

By Doyle Rice, USA TODAY