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Weather technology goes way beyond umbrellas

By Jeremy Hintz / August 26, 2014


Weather technology goes way beyond umbrellas

It wasn’t that long ago that in order to know what the weather was going to be like in the near future, you had to watch the evening news or poke your head out the window and guess (sometimes with the same odds of being correct as your weatherman). While advances in weather technology have increased the accuracy and power of the tools meteorologists use to measure and predict the weather, the more important advances were arguably made in increasing accessibility to weather data. With the advent of mobile and increased connectedness, the way we consume, react to, and think about weather has drastically changed.

Phoning it in

If you have a mobile phone (and if you don’t, why do you read this blog?), you have undoubtedly noticed that there are a bazillion different choices for how to receive your weather information. On iOS, the default weather app is plain and simple and a perfect example of iOS 7 design standards. Inspired by Yahoo! Weather, the simplicity and ease of use are second to none. For recent Android, The default weather center is Google Now, where the information is served up as one of several “cards.” If you just want a quick overview, the card calls out current conditions along with a four-day forecast. For a deeper dive, tap the card and get an hourly outlook over a six-day span.

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While many people find these built-in weather solutions perfectly adequate, there are dozens of third-party apps on the market to meet your meteorological needs. Some offer enhanced information like live Doppler Radars. Others provide cosmetic enhancements like customizable skins and pretty pictures of your location. The question is, are you willing to pay the price or put up with the occasional pop-up ad?

Communication is key

Another major factor of weather is extreme weather. Communicating during a disaster is absolutely crucial for the su­­­ccess and survival of you and your loved ones. One of the coolest tools you’d want in a disaster is called MicroMappers. MicroMappers is a set of apps that use micro-tasking to quickly aggregate and interpret multimedia content on social media during disasters.

Basically, the app serves up tweets, Instagram posts, and other social media messages it thinks might be relevant to users during an imminent disaster. The users then select what the post is saying, where it is referring to, etc. On a large, crowd-sourced scale, this is powerful data that can be used to determine important information about the storm or disaster. It’s a way of putting real boots on the ground without waiting for FEMA. MicroMappers is a joint effort with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, but can be used as well by Red Cross and FEMA.

Another more obvious use of mobile in extreme conditions is text alerts and wireless emergency alerts. The latter is the loud beeping noise your phone makes when there is a tornado or flash flood watch or an Amber Alert. While the loud blaring can be annoying if there isn’t any pressing danger, wireless emergency alerts (WEAs) are the type of thing that save lives. The National Weather Service came up with this system and Congress approved it in 2006 after, you guessed it, Hurricane Katrina. These texts are also used on a smaller scale, like colleges and universities to alert students of the effects of severe weather or other danger on or near campus.

Robots to the rescue

Would you be willing to sit out in the middle of the ocean and track weather patterns 24/7? Of course not. You’re a human, and the amount of Dramamine and sunscreen you’d need to perform such a function would be wildly inefficient. That’s where robots come in.

The Liquid Robotics Wave Glider is a state-of-the-art vessel loaded with solar panels and sensors to track weather, illegal fishing ships, and sharks. That’s right, everyone’s favorite marine-based reality TV stars, sharks. But as exciting as it is to watch a flying shark gobble up a seal, the climate is our biggest concern at the moment.

According to the weather portion of the Liquid Robotics website, there are over 70,000 land-based weather stations and only 1,200 at sea. Each of these weather buoys are expected to cover patches of sea larger than the state of California. Anyone who has ever traveled from San Francisco to San Diego knows how much the weather can fluctuate over that great of a distance. To make matters worse, over a third of the nation’s weather buoys are not even fully operational.

With an army of Wave Gliders patrolling our deepest waters, Liquid Robotics promises to provide:

  • Denser collection network
  • Measurements above and below the surface
  • Unaffected by cloud cover
  • Greater reliability than buoys
  • Significantly lower cost
  • The next big leap in weather modeling

Another exciting development in weather robotics comes from a likely academic institution, Harvard. The Kilobot Project, also known as “A Low Cost Scalable Robot System for Demonstrating Collective Behaviors,” is a study dedicated to teaching cheap robots with low-cost sensors how to work together to perform specific tasks. One of these tasks could be weather tracking.

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Rather than putting Al Roker in danger by sending him into the heart of a storm, scientists can start ordering “swarms” of tiny robots to gather information. Arm these robots with a variety of sensors, and we could receive real-time readings of crucial information like seismic activity, wind speeds, and lightning proximity. It’s like that ridiculous Dorothy II machine from Twister, but it could actually work.

Weather can be a truly fickle creature, and, despite man’s best efforts, a hard one to predict. Even with greater and greater technology at our fingertips, we struggle to accurately assess if, when, and how much it will rain. Luckily, weather technology is allowing us to be better know whether we need to be putting on a jacket before a cold front or boarding up before the storm of the century.

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