Scientists hack ocean-buoy tech to aid Marines in Afghanistan

The Expeditionary Meteorology System gives Marines in Afghanistan accurate, real-time weather reports by way of a redesigned system originally used for ocean buoys.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
4 min read
A U.S. Marine deploys an XMET system at a forward operating base in Afghanistan. U.S. Marine Corps

LA JOLLA, Calif. -- If you want to know how U.S. Marines stationed deep in the desert of Afghanistan get highly accurate real-time weather reports, you have only to look to this stunning seaside town and some of its leading ocean scientists.

What started as a Marine's random comment about needing better weather forecasting because of the dangers of flying in extreme desert conditions quickly led to the development of a tool that can be set up just about anywhere by a couple of Marines in minutes.

How hacked ocean tech gives Marines real-time weather info (pictures)

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The project, known as the Expeditionary Meteorology System, or XMET, got its start at Camp Pendleton, the Marines' major West Coast training center, just north of San Diego.

"What began as an offhand request over a send-off lunch between a deploying Camp Pendleton Marine and friends at...Scripps Institution of Oceanography," reads a release about XMET, "transformed into an award-winning project that has greatly expanded the military's 'environmental intelligence' capabilities in Iraq and Afghanistan battle zones."

I've come to Scripps, which is part of the University of California at San Diego, on Road Trip 2012, and while I would hardly have been surprised to hear that the oceanographers here work regularly on science that helps the U.S. Navy -- they do -- I wasn't prepared to learn that top-tier ocean researchers had come up with something that makes life easier for Marines stationed deep in the Afghan desert, far from the sea.

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But my host at Scripps, Coastal Observing Research and Development Center Director Eric Terrill, soon has me believing.

Typically, Terrill explained, the Marines don't have enough manpower in the desert to post weather observers at all their forward observation bases, so often, in order to find out if they could fly aircraft in a particular area of Afghanistan, it has been necessary to rely on information from unattended sensors.

But with XMET, which travels in what amounts to a large, hard-shell suitcase, the Marines can now quickly and easily set up and man one of the new monitoring stations, and get real-time measurements of all the aviation weather parameters they need to decide whether it's safe to fly or not, Terrill explained.

And the Marines seem very happy about the development. "The cooperation between Scripps...and the U.S. Marine Corps is exemplified by the development of...XMET," Major General Anthony Jackson, commanding general, Marine Corps Installations West, said in the release about XMET. "When Marine Chief Warrant Officer 3 Thomas Muschamp stated a requirement...Terrill and his staff took up the challenge and delivered a useable product in six months. Cooperation between the American scientific and academic communities, Scripps and UCSD being superb examples, makes for a winning combination that goes beyond military applications."

Former buoy
What might be most interesting about XMET is that the technology behind it was originally part of an ocean buoy designed to collect a wide range of weather parameters. Now, because the system was redesigned to meet the needs of that deploying Marine, XMET is helping make life for the troops easier in the deep desert. Yet, Terrill said, that may be just the beginning for the technology. "Now you can have climatology for parts of the world that were never measured before," Terrill told me.

A standard XMET system is mounted on a tripod and can be set up in five minutes or less by two Marines with no tools. It's designed to self-orient, and has optional sensors that can measure rain, wind, and temperature, as well as visibility, all powered by a solar-fed battery. Each hour, an XMET system sends up weather conditions via an Iridium satellite to "mission planners that use it to greenlight or scuttle combat, humanitarian, or medevac operations," the XMET release explains. "Before, such detailed information could only come from observers on the ground."

And the timing of the deployment of XMET was apparently ideal, according to Scripps. That's because it coincided with troop caps in Afghanistan and the reduction in the number of Marines deployed at the many forward operating bases around the desert country. As a result, "There are a lot of unsung heroes at Scripps who have a role on the field of battle whether they know it or not," the Marines' Muschamp said in the release.