EXCLUSIVE: Earth Networks – Flying Under The Radar

Part 1 of redOrbit´s exclusive 6-part series.

large__9660921750Last month, an article published on redOrbit profiled the NASA/NOAA GOES-R satellite. Slated for a 2015 launch, this amazing piece of geostationary technology is being touted for its potential to better predict severe weather conditions in the Western Hemisphere, and there can be no denying its importance to the advancement of meteorological science.

A component of the GOES-R satellite called Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) was highlighted as being particularly important for its ability to detect inter-cloud (IC) lightning. Decades of research has shown that a sudden increase in the IC flash rate inside a cloud is a strong correlative to severe weather and potential tornadic activity. The assertion made by Steve Goodman, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), that the GLM would provide researchers with the ability to detect IC lightning for the first time was welcome news for anyone who has found themselves in the direct path of a severe weather cell. However, that assertion was incorrect.

redOrbit traveled to Germantown, Maryland last week to learn about an innovative ground-based approach to monitoring lightning activity that has been operational for several years already. But the Earth Networks Total Lightning Network (ENTLN) is just one operational aspect of the company behind the popular weather website and app, WeatherBug.

Earth Networks (formerly AWS Convergence Technologies) was launched in 1993 by co-founder and CEO Robert Marshall and co-founder and CTO Chris Sloop. Both Marshall and Sloop, along with senior meteorologist James West, sat down with redOrbit to discuss their company, services and current and emerging technologies.

According to Marshall, Earth Networks´ core competency is sensor networking. And this is hardly a new field for him. Prior to founding Earth Networks, Marshall was a lead engineer and program manager with BBN Technologies, where he was part of a program working on an ocean-based anti-submarine sensor and signal-processing network at the end of the Cold War.

In the early 1990s, as the Internet was just beginning to gain traction with the general public, Marshall and Sloop founded their new company when they saw an opportunity to improve and expand on the basic weather station. While the operation of a weather station was fairly commonplace, the establishment of a network that could collect and analyze large amounts of data from several weather stations at once had never been done before.

In addition to collecting and analyzing incoming data, the founding team saw their new company as providing a unique educational opportunity for schools across the country and eventually launched their WeatherBug Schools Program in 1995. With the purchase of one of their networked weather stations, each school receives lesson plans and curricula specifically designed to meet the education standards for each state. The basic weather stations that the company offers are used to measure variables like wind speed and direction, temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, precipitation and light intensity. The data collected from each weather station can then be transmitted back to the team at Earth Networks.

Reflecting on the growth of the company in the intervening 20 years, Marshall said “We certainly didn´t have a vision for everything we are doing today. I wish I could say we did, but I didn´t. We had no idea.”

Talking about their wide deployment model, he continued, “The one thing we did know, I think we had decent foresight into, was that the data would be valuable. If we built a network with lots of sensors and we maintained the right to that data, that data would be valuable.”

Earth Networks now operates over 10,000 individual weather sensor units globally. The bulk of their sensor concentration is located in densely populated areas of the US, Canada, parts of Europe, Brazil, Southeast Asia and Australia. Although they operate the largest weather-sensor network in the world, Marshall still sees the future deployment of Earth Networks weather stations in the world´s emerging economies as a great opportunity.

“Once you go outside the US, there’s about 7 billion people in the world and 6 billion of them have never received a weather warning at all. I mean, you’ve never been told that there’s a severe thunderstorm coming your way,” he said.

One of the most attractive benefits of an Earth Networks weather sensor unit is its affordability in comparison to the purchase and implementation of a national radar system, which Marshall says would require billions of dollars that many nations simply cannot afford.

Parts two and three of ‘Earth Networks: Flying Under The Radar’ will offer a detailed overview of the Earth Networks Total Lightning Network sensor program and how the company´s early use of established research with respect to IC lightning positioned them to become a leader in the advanced severe weather alert community.

photo credit: slworking2 via photopin cc

(Originally published at redOrbit.com)


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