Students at UMass Amherst Help Design, Build and Manage Their Own Weather-Sensing Radar System

AMHERST, Mass. – An all-student team of 15 graduate and undergraduate researchers, including members from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is creating an experimental radar system designed to transform our ability to monitor rainfall. The students, working with the Center for Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere (CASA) in the UMass College of Engineering, are building an array of sensors, called a test bed, that produces very accurate rainfall data to be used to predict flooding, wind fields, and for crop hydrology. Such precise data is very valuable to weather forecasters, agriculturalists and researchers.

The student-run project is funded with a three-year supplemental grant of $300,000 from the National Science Foundation. The foundation originally funded CASA with a five-year, $17-million grant.

The idea for the student-run test bed, which will be deployed in Puerto Rico, came about after researchers from CASA – a collaboration among UMass Amherst, the University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez (UPRM), the University of Oklahoma (UO) and Colorado State University (CSU) – realized that their students weren''t getting the big picture related to the revolutionary, weather-sensing, radar systems being developed by the center.

“In previous research efforts, we tended to give each student a little piece of the project,” says David McLaughlin, CASA director and professor of electrical and computer engineering. “So we said, ‘Why not create a test bed that''s all done by students? Let''s create a complex, vital test bed and have lots of hardware, lots of software, real weather, real end users – the whole story. But let''s also have every aspect owned and managed by the students.''”

A year ago, McLaughlin assigned Brian Donovan, a doctoral candidate in electrical and computer engineering, to coordinate the project. Donovan''s primary collaborators are four other graduate students: Victor Marrero of UPRM focusing on radar systems; Diego Arias of UPRM doing grid computing; Elham Mazroi of OU specializing in hydrology; and Tarun Banks of CSU studying network protocols.

Working together, those five and the 10 other students on the team soon came up with an innovative concept that has impressed McLaughlin with its sophistication and creativity. It consists of a two-tiered test bed of complementary radar technologies. The first tier of the test bed is an “umbrella” system of several magnetron radars with a networking ability and range of about 30 kilometers. One of these NetRad 30s is currently being built by graduate and undergraduate students at UMass Amherst and UPRM. “One of our purposes for building these NetRad 30 radars,” says Donovan, “is to teach students the concepts of radar from the ground up.”

Beneath this umbrella of NetRad 30s, the test bed will deploy several smaller, self-powered, off-the-grid, 10-kilometer radars, each approximately the size of a desktop computer. Collectively, this two-tiered system will cover a crucial, one-and-a-half-kilometer-high gap in atmospheric weather-monitoring over western Puerto Rico that traditional radar technology cannot sense. The test bed will also give much higher and more accurate resolution for rainfall and wind data than is now possible. And it could be used as a back-up to the current radar system if the Puerto Rican electrical grid blacks out in heavy weather.

To date, the students have successfully defended their experimental concept to a 12-person NSF peer-review panel, as well as CASA ''s Science and Industrial Advisory Boards. The first of the undergraduate-built NetRad 30s should be ready for field-testing this spring. The student team is now designing the off-the-grid, 10-K system, complete with energy-conservation protocols that compensate for the limited wattage produced by non-grid power sources. The prototype off-the-grid node will be tested initially at the CSU radar test facility before deployment in Puerto Rico. The whole test bed should be up and running in 18 months.