The summer of 2004 might not have set hurricane records, but hundreds of thousands of lives were disrupted by either a hurricane or the threat of one on its way. Improved knowledge of the paths these storms are most likely to take will lead to more accurate advisories and reduce the chances of unnecessary evacuations for hurricanes that don't strike where expected.
Ensco, an R&D firm, is working on a storm path prediction system based on helium-filled balloons about the size of grapefruits. Their walls will be studded with nanosensors, wired to an onboard microcomputer, that monitor atmospheric conditions including temperature, pressure, moisture, and wind speed. Released by the thousands, the balloons will drift about until some are pulled into the circulating pattern characteristic of a building hurricane, when they will relay their data wirelessly back to meteorologists.
Each balloon and its sensors will weigh 1–2 oz., ensuring long periods of lift. Economies of scale will bring production costs down far enough to make the system economically feasible to the point of being disposable.
The project is funded by NASA's Institute for Advanced Concepts. A working prototype of the system is expected in about a year.