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Pioneering sensors collect weather data from moving vehicles

First publishedin ITS International
2011 July August
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Mobile Devices vehicle roof-mounted main sensor box
Vehicle roof-mounted main sensor box, from Mobile Devices' main sensor box

David Crawford foresees the vehicle as 'sentinel being'

US commercial trucks and buses are finding new roles as data providers to the country's National Weather Service (NWS).

A partnership between US Government science and technology service contractor Global Science & Technology (GST) and Canadian mobile intelligence specialist Weather Telematics is deploying a pioneering telematics platform-based array of sensors designed to collect granular meteorological information from moving vehicles.

The partners' Mobile Platform Environmental Data - Initial Capability (MoPED-IC) system is currently in operation on a fleet of 32 buses plying routes in the Northeast US and on 500 trucks running across the country under a US$2.8 milion government contract. By September 2011, GST vice president of innovation Brian Bell expects the fleet to be up to 1,500 vehicles strong.

It will then, he says, extend across the whole of the continental US, covering many interstate highway several times daily. He is not naming the trucking companies taking part because "they probably don't want their competitors to know that they're starting to have this type of capability". But, says Weather Telematics ceo Bob Moran: "We have selected them on the basis of their being recognised leaders within the transportation industry and having forward-thinking mindsets."

Mesoscale measurement

MoPED-IC forms part of a broader NWS mesonet programme designed to enhance the monitoring of weather conditions in the mesoscale range. This describes weather events ranging in size from about 1km to 150km in extent and from a few minutes to several hours in duration. Many of these typically go undetected in the absence of appropriately densely-spaced weather observations.

Mesonets have emerged from the need for detailed research into mesoscale phenomena and typically consist of modular and portable sets of independent automated weather stations. MoPEDIC is the US's first land vehicle-based system developed to support weather observation nationwide in a country where weatherrelated delays are estimated to cost over US$40bn a year.

The programme, which follows a US$1.5 million 2009- 2010 pilot with a MoPED prototype system, is already collecting over 100,000 observations a day - taken at 300m or approximately 10s intervals. The individual sensors read the road surface temperature, humidity, ambient temperature, dew point (calculated), precipitation, light intensity, ozone and barometric pressure.

"The ozone sensor also determines a vehicle's carbon footprint using environmental criteria," says Moran. "The system has the scalability to include a host of additional sensors, for security purposes and beyond." The results are processed and stored on a GST server for transmission in near-real time to the NWS's Meteorological Assimilation Data Ingest System (MADIS). They are also archived to be accessible for future research into historic weather patterns and signatures. The partners estimate the system to be capable of collecting close to 27bn weather data points a year with a fleet of 1,500 vehicles. Truck 'chasers' equipped with the same MoPED-IC platform, and able to compare data from, for example, vehicles travelling side by side, ensure the levels of consistency demanded by the NWS. Among gaps in existing weather reporting that the resulting information aims to fill are incidences of rain that are undetected by radar or conditions in underobserved areas such as valleys or mountainous regions.

Says Moran: "Each vehicle can be considered to be the equivalent of 8,640 fixed weather stations dispersed randomly across a broader geographical terrain. The Weather Telematics mobile network fills in the observation gaps left by fixed weather stations to provide finer spatial and temporal resolution for more accurate and timely weather alerts and forecasts." He foresees commercial as well as governmental clients.

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MoPED-IC System Diagram
How the MoPED-IC system works

Sensor suite

In the current programme, French-headquartered navigation system developer Mobile Devices is supplying, as the telematics base, its Morpheus3 open operating system running in C4D model units with two serial ports.

Says Moran: "The Mobile Devices open architecture let us create, and enables us to update, our application directly on the box." But the technology, he stresses, is "box agnostic - it can run on almost any telematics platform".

The main sensor box, measuring 178x51x51mm, sits on top of the vehicle, between 3m and 4m above the road surface. The road surface temperature sensor, which sits on the bottom of the vehicle no more than 1m above ground level, is a patented, miniaturized, passive infrared thermometer with a germaniumcoated lens enclosed in an inclement weather barrel.

All sensors are sited to meteorological specifications and, says Moran, have been specially developed, as have meteorological algorithms used to collect, calibrate and deliver the weather information; though he is not naming any suppliers pending the completion of patent processes. The whole system is designed for automatic recalibration over the air in the event of a variation requiring a reset.

The integral black ice detection system can be used primarily for surface weather observation, to supply data for weather forecasting and modelling agencies; or by fleets purely as a risk management tool for driver safety. It is designed to calculate cross point (the difference between dew- and frost-point).

Using a proprietary meteorological algorithm, it combines road surface temperature with data from other sensors (for example, those measuring ambient temperature, humidity and precipitation) to determine when moisture changes from liquid to solid form.

For fleet applications, the system can drive a user-friendly interface via an ICE blue LED warning light. This alerts drivers when the conditions for black ice are prevalent.

Ā A GPS component in the box enables tracking, speed monitoring and journey time estimation. A CANbus interface allows remote collection of weather-related vehicle diagnostic data such as humidity into intake valves, anti-lock braking, idling and fuel consumption.

Potential clients

Other public-sector clients could include municipalities, which deploy salt spray as part of their winter road maintenance programmes, who could use the ice detection capability to gain threshold data for sprayer activation at exactly the right temperature.

"Laying road salt at one degree below freezing can render the application useless, while doing so at half a degree above maximises its full potential," says Moran.

Municipal vehicles could also act as mobile weather stations providing real time local conditions for a fee: "You then move into the realm of fleet monetisation, which allows an operator to create a revenue stream outside its core business applications by simply using its fleet assets to collect and deliver information which is already available." The partners also foresee no shortage of commercial opportunities. (GST has previously developed a communication protocol for the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which it then spun off into a company developing protocols for private-sector wireless markets.)

Modelling for the future

In early summer 2011, a tornado touched down in the Northeast US, killing four people. "As it happened," Moran told ITS International, "nine equipped vehicles were operating in the area before, during and after the event.

"We were able immediately to isolate the resulting data for research projects which will allow us to help meteorologists create predictive models that will identify the perfect pre-tornado signature. Such projects can extend to the prediction of other inclement weather phenomena, which can be useful for warning the public of pending hailstorms and black ice and alerting emergency medical services." Looking beyond weather and environmental sensing capabilities, Moran anticipates roles in highway maintenance and management, by equipping vehicles to monitor and report on the physical surface conditions of roads and bridges.

"The data could also enable personalised insurance premiums, based on combining data on driver behaviour with weather observations." In the long term, he can see the technology turning vehicles into "sentinel beings" that can save lives by helping to reduce weather-related incidents and delays. Adding specialised sensors would enable them to detect traces of chemical and biological agents and radiological materials, for security need
They expect truck operators to want to buy the instrument kit to enable them, for example, to make route calculations for temperature-sensitive and weather-dependent goods and divert long-haul transporters. For operators wanting to sell the data, Weather Telematics can provide the boxes and pay a percentage of the revenue generated. In most cases, says Moran, the company will own the data, as the supplier and formatter.

Among other potential fleets being reviewed, the US Postal Regulatory Commission has recently floated the idea of involving US Postal Service vehicles, which use most of the country's road network to reach virtually every home and business address.

Further progress would, however, need to overcome an institutional reluctance to let federal agencies take part in activities that lie outside their charters.

Meanwhile, the US Department of Transportation is already engaged in long-term discussions with automotive manufacturers on the kinds of data that could be collected from sensors located in private cars.

GST has already had expressions of interest in MoPED-IC from businesses in the insurance, energy, construction and security sectors. It sees the resulting data being available on mobile phones and via in-vehicle systems, where it could eventually help individuals make smarter driving decisions.

Companies in this article

Weather Telematics
Mobile Devices
US Department of Transportation

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