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Weather researchers test out radar grids

The University of Massachusetts is leading a $40 million research effort to see if a grid of low-cost radar sensors can forecast severe weather better than more expensive equipment and methods.

A $40 million research center is being set up to explore whether a distributed "grid" of lightweight radars can forecast the weather better than traditional radar systems and multimillion-dollar supercomputers.

The Engineering Research Center for Collaborative Adapative Sensing of Atmosphere (CASA), funded in part by the National Science Foundation, will focus on giving more-accurate forecasts and early warnings to guard against severe weather patterns, such as hurricanes, tornados and flash floods, according to the University of Massachusetts. The university announced Wednesday that it will lead the five-year research project, working with three other academic institutions in the United States and Puerto Rico.

Central to the research effort is the use of small radar systems, placed on top of buildings or cell phone towers to capture weather information. These would do the job of the high-power long-range radar widely used today, which can have antennas up to 30 feet high. CASA researchers predict that a network of smaller radars--which are about the size of a PC--will lead to more-accurate forecasts.

The smaller low-cost sensor systems can gather better information because they are measuring weather patterns in the lower atmosphere, according to CASA. Long-range radars gather data from above weather patterns, meaning that the Earth's curvature and obstructions such as mountains can distort results.

"CASA will catch tornados and thunderstorms that can't be detected today," said David McLaughlin, the director of CASA and a University of Massachusetts professor, in a statement. "We expect this system to reduce the financial impact of weather-related transportation delays."

The researchers plan to connect the radar sensors via a network, so that they can share data with each other and adjust sensing functions in response to changing weather patterns. The system will also be designed to generate weather data and feed this to government agencies, emergency managers and commercial businesses, CASA said.

The radar sensors will act like a computing grid, in which computing tasks are shared across a network of several machines, said Dan Bonelli, a vice president at IBM, which is providing some of the computing infrastructure for the project. This network of sensors will gather and send data to centralized computers, which can process and analyze it, he said.

"You have massive amounts of data being captured and stored and distributed. On the other end, you have the meteorological agencies, which will have access to information they never had before--at this level of detail--for analysis," Bonelli said. For example, a network of Earth-bound radars could track the precise path of a tornado and help emergency managers to avoid moving people out of areas that are unlikely to be hit, he said.

The project will begin with four test beds of networked radar sensors. The University of Oklahoma, Colorado State University and the University of Puerto Rico will collaborate with the University of Massachusetts in the study. Commercial partners include Raytheon and IBM.