By Russell McCulley
NEW ORLEANS, Jan 22 (Reuters) - Unmanned aircraft like those used by the U.S. military in Iraq will increasingly be used to monitor storms, a role currently performed by manned aircraft, weather officials said on Tuesday.
At an American Meteorological Society meeting in New Orleans, U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists announced a three-year program initially funded with $3 million to study use of unmanned aircraft in hurricanes.
Data from such missions could allow scientists to learn more about how and why storms spin into hurricanes and why they change speed and direction, said NOAA research meteorologist Marty Ralph.
"This is a huge breakthrough when it comes to getting to places we couldn’t go," Ralph said, predicting that unmanned aircraft "will become ubiquitous in the coming decade."
NOAA, which has relied on several generations of manned "hurricane hunter" planes to monitor storms, sent unmanned craft into Hurricane Noel in 2007.
Current hurricane flights drop tube-like, data-gathering devices known as sondes, which sample conditions as they fall and radio the data back to the plane.
Unlike manned aircraft, which are generally safe but put people at risk, unmanned craft theoretically could operate for sustained periods at lower altitudes and give meteorologists a continuous sampling of data, including wind speed, temperature, pressure and moisture, Ralph said.
More accurate prediction of storms would give oil companies a better idea of when to keep offshore platforms running and when to shut them down. It also would aid coastal cities such as New Orleans, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, in making preparations, NOAA research meteorologist Joe Cione said.
(Editing by Stuart Grudgings)