Chasing a tornado might be nuts, but chasing a hurricane is beyond nuts. Being in a car near a tornado sounds like a bad idea, but at least you might hit a Norse god or end up in Oz or something. You’d have to go hurricane-chasing in a boat or helicopter, though, and being in a helicopter in hurricane-force winds seems like suicidal madness.

Luckily, we have unmanned robots to do the work that humans can’t or don’t want to do. And a brave little robot named Alex is out in the ocean at this very minute, working to better understand the conditions that lead to hurricanes like Isaac.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations matched.

Alex is a Wave Glider robot, and he gets all of his power from the sun and from the ocean’s waves. He measures wave movements and air pressure and can either steer himself or be directed from shore. Right now, he’s hanging out off the coast of Puerto Rico, but sometime this season, he could find himself smack dab in the middle of a hurricane, gathering data in conditions that would almost definitely kill humans.

That data could help improve predictions about hurricanes’ behavior and the paths they’ll take. Evacuation orders that end up being unnecessary only make people more ornery and stubborn and less likely to leave the next time, so the better predictions scientists can make, the safer everyone will be. Not least the people who would have ended up in that storm-tracking helicopter.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.