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“Local Microclimate Weather Data” • May 16, 2006

Yeah — I’m back on the weather again!


Sometimes things get juxtaposed in time that can lead to new ideas.  I finished writing the M Column on Aeronautical Weather Data, then clicked over to the news on the net to see what you DNA’s had done today to make your lives more miserable.

I wasn’t surprised that the misery index was up 10 points but then I stumbled upon an article about SETI.  SETI is the “Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence.” (I think maybe you DNA’s should try a search for “Terrestrial Intelligence” sometime, too!)

ANYWAY — those two ideas — aeronautical weather reporting and SETI — were kind of doing a spin cycle under the blond tresses — and Eureka!  I got another great idea!!  (I win a cookie!!  I always win a cookie when I get great ideas!)

One of the neat things about the “SETI@Home” program is that to process the countless gazillion bytes of data from the radio telescopes, people over all over the world have volunteered their “unused” computer cycles to collectively process this torrent of data.  You download a “screensaver” sort of program that runs when your computer isn’t busy.  It in turn downloads a chunk of SETI data and processes it looking for signs that ET is trying to make a long distance call to us.  It finishes with one chunk, sends it back to SETI central, and gets a new chunk to work on.  This happens on millions of volunteer computers and effectively creates an incredible powerful “single” computer that is capable of processing the SETI data.

Since SETI@Home has been so successful, there are similar distributed volunteer computer networks working on a huge range of projects.  Some of these include AIDS research, protein folding, Mersenne Primes, Einstein@Home which is looking for gravitational waves, and a lot of other stuff.  Check out:

Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing

for current and future projects.

And while I was at the Berkeley site, I found:

Climate Prediction Net

which further stirred up the blond brain cells.  The folks at this “Climate Prediction Experiment” are grinding away at weather and climate data.

Hmmm — distributed data processing is one way that the weather people,

National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration

could increase their processing power.  And — it fits in really well with my idea.

SETI and the rest of the programs show that people are willing to devote time and resources to helping out research.  And while not all would be willing, there should still be a LOT that would chip in a few bucks to be part of something as important as the weather.

When I put all of this stuff together, I envisioned a small weatherproof outdoor box stuffed with a few simply solid state components that piggybacks on a user’s internet connection to once an hour or so, send in the VERY local weather.  Fill a city with these things and you REALLY begin to understand the effects of a city environment on climate.  Dispatch a few to Possum Belly Prairie and other out of the way places and you start filling in a lot of holes in our weather collection system.  Stick them on light poles along a freeway and you start to understand the local microclimate effects of traffic.  Put them EVERYWHERE.

That much data might start to drown NOAA’s computers, but just do a SETI bit and let volunteer users crunch the data down to size before sending it to NOAA!!

SO — what could we stuff in our little box and what measurements could we make? And what would it cost?

Let’s start by cannibalizing existing circuitry.  Take the photocells and battery from a “solar calculator” and increase the battery capacity to last a couple of days without sunshine for power.  We’ve got a very low duty cycle — one measurement and transmission an hour or so — and if we use very lower power sensors, this would provide our power needs.

Next, grab the circuitry from a pocket pager, (they ran for month on a single AAA battery,) and use it for timing the measurements.  Use the FM paging network to send out a single coded pulse that tells all the units to take a measurement at the same time.  Then use a random number generator, ala Ethernet, to spread the time of transmission out over a few minutes so we don’t get a communications spike.

To measure temperature, just use a thermistor, (a resistor that varies with temperature,) and a 555 timer chip as a multivibrator, (like the circuitry used on the joystick port of a computer.) This is not going to be very accurate on an individual absolute basis, but when combined with all the similar units that are also reporting the temperature, a correction curve can be computed for each unit to produce a much more accurate measurement.  Use this same technique to “accurize” all the measurements.

To get humidity, a wet bulb temperature would work, but then a water supply has to be maintained.  Instead use something like a “hair” hygrometer to measure relative humidity directly.  Basically, all it would take is a tiny piece of hair or similar material on a chip with one end fixed and the other connected to a tiny strain gage.

Measure rainfall with a vertical tube with an LED shining across it to a photocell.  Rain falling through would change the output of the photocell and could be correlated to actual rainfall.

Barometric pressure could be measured with off the shelf chip technology.  There are already micromachined pressure sensors.

Toss in three chip borne accelerometers and you’d also be tracking seismic events.

For wind speed and direction, maybe use a pair of tubes crossed at 90 degrees, each with a hot wire anemometer.  The hot wire anemometer might be too power hungry, so maybe you just use a “sail” type gadget from an A/C duct and connect it to a variable resister — and then use some more joystick port type electronics to calculate wind speed.

Add a couple of photocells to measure light both straight up with a narrow beam and a second with a plastic “fisheye” lens to measure the ambient light.  You could deduce a lot about sky and cloud conditions from an array of these scattered over an area.

And a low frequency receiver like in the aircraft Storm Trackers and Strike Finders that “listens” for lightning.  Using an array of these, you could triangulate each lightning stroke.  These would have to transmit as soon as they heard something — this might increase the power requirements a little.

You could also add an ozone detector to impute pollution levels.  Add other sensors for other molecules.

In Wi-Fi areas, let the units report directly.  In cell phone service areas, let them squeeze out a tiny data stream once an hour or so.  Maybe the cell towers could trigger the units to report when they’ve got a free channel for a few seconds.  In other areas, let them transmit by radio to a receiving unit plugged into a user’s USB port.  I bought a ten buck gadget from Wal-Mart that sends the outside temperature to my inside unit.  Rob the same technology.

Most of this stuff could all be built on a single chip.  And if you produce millions of them, the unit cost would be very low.  Scatter them over every city, town, farm, roadway — everywhere — and when you do, you’d have enough fine detail to better understand and predict the weather on both a macro and micro basis.  And over time, you build up climate data, too.  And since I live an hour from the worlds largest refinery complex, you could also use them to monitor the spread of toxic agents in the case of an accident.

Anyway — something for all of us to think about!

Love,

Meredith


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Last Updated: May 2006


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