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Sunday, January 25, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 18.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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UW-Madison to use NASA 'drone' to study hurricanes
The drone will be available to the UW for three weeks this summer during hurricane season.

On Tuesday, Salon reported that the Federal Aviation Administration has approved 25 universities to fly drones in U.S. airspace.

Included on the list is the University of Wisconsin. But this isn't something well known, even among campus administrators.

Weapons testing and development has a long, controversial history on U.S. colleges and some administrators are understandably wary of controversy surrounding the unmanned aircraft, which were developed by the military for spying and bombing. Recently, police departments have begun using the technology, causing further alarm.

In an email, Steve Ackerman, director of UW's Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies, writes: "We generally refer to them as UAV -- unmanned aircraft vehicles -- as opposed to drones because of the public image that the word drone will call up."

There are, of course, many other uses for drones. Chris Velden, a senior researcher at the institute, says the university is working with NASA on a three-year project to study hurricanes, starting this summer. Whether or not this is the FAA-approved drone cited in Salon is uncertain.

The Global Hawk drone the UW will be using "is big, it's not a little toy airplane," Velden says in a phone interview. "It's a full sized airplane, but it's autonomous."

"It's a really big bird," he adds. "Most of the UAVs talked about are just a toy plane, the size of a bike. They're limited in how far they can fly."

The drone will be available to the UW for three weeks this summer during hurricane season, when it will fly over and around one, or perhaps two hurricanes in the Atlantic to gather information. "[NASA is] going to fly it around 70,000 feet and loiter over hurricanes," he says.

One purpose is for "ground truthing" -- checking to see if data obtained from satellites accurately matches what's going on in the air, Velden says. Another purpose is to test "theories as to why a hurricane intensifies."

The UW will conduct experiments with the drone again in 2013 and 2014, Velden says.

Why is a Wisconsin university studying hurricanes instead of snow storms? "We get that question a lot," says Velden.

"We specialize in bringing in satellite data from all over the world," he adds. "So really if you have satellites you don't have to be in the impact area. We keep out of harm's way."

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