Sailing Drone Captures First-Ever Footage From Inside a Major Hurricane

The Saildrone Explorer collected data while battling Category 4 winds and surf.

Saildrone camera view
Image captured by SD 1045's onboard camera during Hurricane Sam.


On September 30, 2021, with Hurricane Sam churning in the Atlantic as a powerful Category 4 storm, the uncrewed Saildrone Explorer set a course directly for its center. As it neared the eye of the hurricane, battling waves towering 50 feet and winds in excess of 120 miles per hour, the drone sent back incredible videos and photos of the violent scene churning around it. 

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, said in a press release. “After conquering the Arctic and the Southern Ocean, hurricanes were the last frontier for Saildrone survivability. We are proud to have engineered a vehicle capable of operating in the most extreme weather conditions on earth.”

Designed less for speed and more for stability, the latest design of the Saildrone features a 23-foot-long hull with a 15-foot-tall wing. Wind passing over the wing produces thrust, while GPS allows the vehicle to follow waypoints, and various science-grade sensors measure important atmospheric and oceanographic environmental variables. Each drone can spend as long as 12 months at sea without the need to return to land for maintenance or refueling. 

Entering Hurricane Sam, the Saildrone Explorer SD 1045—one of a fleet of five hurricane Saildrones monitoring storms in the Atlantic Ocean this season—recorded video and sent data back to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory and the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory. The goal is to utilize these uncrewed surface vehicles (USVs) to help build better prediction models for tropical storms and hurricanes.

“Using data collected by Saildrones, we expect to improve forecast models that predict rapid intensification of hurricanes,” NOAA scientist Greg Foltz said. “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.”

From Staring Down Hurricanes to Surveying the Ocean Depths

Besides its fleet of nimble storm-focused drones, Saildrone earlier this year also unveiled its Saildrone Surveyor, a 72-foot supercharged version of the Explorer capable of both shallow and deep water ocean mapping. Like the Bedrock seafloor-mapping drones spotlighted last month, the Surveyor can map the ocean floor using clean energy and at a fraction of the cost of traditional crewed surveying vessels. Saildrone also sees it as a vital contributing member to a UN-backed initiative to produce a definitive map of the world’s oceans by 2030

“The launch of the Surveyor is a huge step up, not just for Saildrone’s data services but for the capabilities of uncrewed systems in our oceans,” said Jenkins. “For the first time, a scalable solution now exists to map our planet within our lifetime, at an affordable cost.”