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ODU Engineer Helps Develop Device to Remotely Measure Severe Weather Air Pressure

An Old Dominion University researcher is part of a team contracted by NASA to develop a prototype device to measure sea-level air pressure during hurricanes.

It's research that could ultimately lead to improved forecasting of severe ocean weather - where hurricanes will hit the U.S. coast, and how strong they will be - said Wes Lawrence, an assistant professor of engineering technology at ODU's Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology.

"When people try to predict the location of hurricanes at landfall, and their intensity at landfall, one variable that has a big impact is the pressure field between the hurricane location and the coast. Presently, that's difficult to measure," Lawrence said. "You can use buoys sometimes, but they're sparsely placed. And they often get damaged at the very time you need data. So the idea was to come up with a concept to try to measure surface pressure remotely."

Researchers at NASA, State University of New York at Albany and Old Dominion University collaborated on the creation of the prototype air pressure sensor, known as Differential Absorption Barometric Radar (DIABAR). It's a device that could be placed on an aircraft flying high above a storm, or potentially on one of the unmanned aircraft that fly directly into hurricanes. The prototype is scheduled to make its second flight early this year.

Lawrence, whose expertise is in remote sensing and electromagnetic fields, received two grants totaling $150,000 for his part of the endeavor.

"I helped to develop a prototype instrument to verify this concept as a measurement technique. We flew it on a helicopter to create data for analysis. Then I helped to develop a calibration approach and data processing technique to get barometric pressure from the radar data," Lawrence said.

This device is designed to measure the amount of oxygen in the column of air.

"We're really not that interested in oxygen," Lawrence said. "Oxygen is typically uniformly mixed in the atmosphere. So if we measure how much oxygen is there, we know how much air is there. If we know how much air is there, we know the pressure at the surface. Now if you have a map of pressure at the surface, those differences in pressure are winds, and they steer the hurricane.

The prototype device doesn't have the degree of sophistication required to provide the precision necessary to calculate atmospheric pressure remotely, Lawrence said, so the research team has applied for more funding to refine its process.

The researchers are seeking to build a more stable, better-calibrated prototype, which would more effectively gather the data operationally, and assimilate this information into models of previous storms.

The payoff for society is potentially immense, according to Lawrence.

"If you're not very accurate predicting how bad hurricanes are going to be, pretty soon people just don't listen," he said. "One of the things we hope is that, eventually, we can improve those estimates of where hurricanes hit, and how strong they'll be.

"If we can do that, perhaps people in nursing homes, for example, would know when they need to evacuate their residents. And you could better deploy police. There are lots of advantages if we can make this happen."

This article was posted on: March 3, 2011

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