NWS goes trucking for hard-to-reach data

Vehicle fleets as roving sensor networks? The National Weather Service says yes.

Hitchhiking used to be a respectable way for  people to share mobile resources. Although rising crimes rates and public fears virtually put an end to that practice in the 1970s, it is being revived — for data if not for people.

The National Weather Service, in fact, has just completed a one-year pilot project in which it received weather data from sensors riding on 20 Greyhound buses between New York City and Montreal. The test went so well that the National Weather Service recently awarded a $2.8 million contract to expand the program.  

According to the primary contractor, Global Science & Technology, 2,000 commercial vehicles will be equipped with sensors beginning in October and will be sending data to NWS in near real time. “We are rolling out coverage on the national level,” said Brian Bell, vice president and general manager at GST.

That effort is likely to mark the beginning of programs run by government agencies and private companies to deploy fleets of vehicles that collect a variety of data.

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In a recent opinion article in the New York Times, Michael Ravnitzky, chief counsel to the chairman of the Postal Regulatory Commission, suggested that the U.S. Postal Service’s fleet of vehicles could be used as a massive data collection network. 

“The service's thousands of delivery vehicles have only one purpose now: to transport mail," Ravnitzky wrote. "But what if they were fitted with sensors to collect and transmit information about weather or air pollutants? The trucks would go from being bulky tools of Industrial Age communication to being on the cutting edge of 21st-century information gathering and forecasting.” 

“After all, the delivery fleet already goes to almost every home and business in America nearly every day, and it travels fixed routes along a majority of the country's roads to get there. Data collection wouldn't require much additional staff or resources; all it would take would be a small, cheap and unobtrusive sensor package mounted on each truck.”

Thanks to smaller sensors and better transmission capabilities, it’s possible to mount packages that could measure many different variables, including weather conditions, radiation levels, pollution, electrical field fluctuations, pollen, natural gas leaks and cell phone signal coverage.

Bell said the box of sensors that GST will mount for NWS measures about 7 inches by 2 inches by 2 inches. “The data parameters that we are collecting include ambient temperature, relative humidity, dew point, surface temperature, precipitation and solar information,” Bell said. “On a daily basis, we’re collecting over 100,000 observations. Every 10 seconds we’re collecting data — that’s about every 300 meters — and transmitting it in near real time to the National Weather Service.”

The mesonet

NWS’ Mobile Platform Environmental Data (MoPED) system is part of a broader mesonet program to enhance monitoring of weather in the mesoscale range, which is anything from about 10 kilometers in range to about 1,000 kilometers. Anything smaller is microscale. Curtis Marshall, NWS’ national mesonet program manager, said MoPED is the most innovative component. 

“That’s just my personal opinion,” he said. “A mesonet is nothing new. The idea has been around since the 1980s. But a sustained mobile effort has not been around.” 

Marshall said NWS researchers are still going over the data from the pilot project, but the results bear out the view that GST “successfully demonstrated that it could be done.”

One big question was whether the vehicles and motion might affect data collection. “As you might imagine, when you put a weather box on a vehicle and drive it down the road, what it senses may be a product of the vehicle disturbing the environment more than the environment itself,” Marshall said. “It is still a work in progress, but the pilot did show that the data is not off the wall. So the concept is viable.”

Marshall added that MoPED is not the weather service’s first stab at mobile vehicle data collection. The service has been working with airlines to collect vertical information during takeoffs and landings. “It is key to knowing what’s going on with the weather,” Marshall said. “You have to know the vertical change of wind, temperature and moisture with height.”

The tried and true method of collecting vertical data has been the use of weather balloons. Unfortunately, Marshall said, that technology has “technical and certainly budgetary challenges because you’re launching things that are expendable.” Marshall is looking forward to more data from MoPED, though he cautions that the results “are not going to be some revolution in the skill of our basic forecast products.”

However, Marshall does expect that MoPED will deliver critical high-resolution information along transportation corridors. And the data can be applied to efforts such as decision support for winter weather and road maintenance. “States and counties waste tons and tons of money every winter on unnecessary salting,” Marshall said. “If you have high-resolution information about very fine scale weather conditions along roadways, there’s potential cost savings. And this just one little sector of the economy.”

The perfect fleet

The Greyhound bus fleet is not, of course, the only good candidate for data collection. In fact, Bell said GST will be partnering with other commercial fleets for collecting weather data. He can’t name the particular fleets, he said, because “they probably don’t want their competitors to know that they’re starting to have this type of capability.” Do companies such as UPS and FedEx come to mind?

As Ravnitzky noted, however, the perfect vehicle fleet for such data collection might be the U.S. Postal Service's.

“If you had to design a sensor system from scratch, that is what it would look like,” said an analyst who asked not to be because he did not have permission from his agency to talk to the press. “It would have fixed routes, and it would be spread out across the country. The more densely populated the area, the more dense the route would be. Postal trucks go everywhere every day.”

The analyst noted, however, that there’s a reluctance to allow federal agencies or departments to participate in activities outside their specific charters. “The sense in this country has always been that the Postal Service should not get involved in other business activities that don’t relate to postal activities,” he said. “They shouldn’t get into the business of selling doughnuts, or whatever, because it’s a government monopoly.” 

Data consumers

The potential consumers of mobile data collection are at least as broad as the potential carriers of sensors.

In fact, GST has already submitted a proposal to the Environmental Protection Agency. “We have a proposal in to the EPA using our mobile assets as a next-generation air quality monitoring system,” Bell said. “We already have an ozone sensor, so we’d probably put on a CO2 sensor as well.” Bell said the company is also looking into possible applications for monitoring chemical and biological agents.

And private companies, of course, also represent a potentially huge market for a variety of environmental data.

For example, it was a highway construction company that first came to GST nearly 10 years ago looking for a solution to a problem they had. Bell said the New York company was losing payloads of asphalt being hauled between Binghamton and Buffalo because of bad weather. “It was the third time they had lost a load,” Bell said. “You can imagine being out $60,000 to $100,000. You start asking yourself ‘How come I can’t get good information about weather?’”

GST has also drawn the interest of one of the biggest grocery store chains in North America. In addition, a couple of insurance companies have made inquiries. “They could have a quantifiable analysis of the route that you take to work and some risk could be attached to that based on weather,” Bell said. “Are you going through areas where there is a lot of hail or fog that causes accidents? Your premium could be adjusted for the better or the worse.”

“The societal benefits of this are so big,” Bell added. “It’s an affordable way to leverage existing technologies and commercial fleets out there that can actually provide many, many benefits not only for the government but also for states and the average traveler. It’s a big win for everybody.” 


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