New technology could enhance safety in rain and snow

October 09, 2003

BOULDER--The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) Foundation has awarded an exclusive manufacturing license to Yankee Environmental Systems to manufacture an electrical gauge that calculates real-time rates of snow, rain, and other types of precipitation. Because it is small and requires little maintenance, the HotplateTM Total Precipitation Sensor can be strategically placed along airport runways or busy highways to help track weather conditions and ensure the safety of travelers.

"The Hotplate is a breakthrough design that uses a compelling new approach to the longstanding problem of measuring precipitation in real time," says Wayne Moore, vice president of business development for the UCAR Foundation. "Rarely does a product of the atmospheric research community offer such promise to society at large."

The Hotplate Total Precipitation Sensor was invented by Roy Rasmussen at NCAR and John Hallett at the Desert Research Institute (DRI), who have worked on the technology with a team of researchers since 1995. The Federal Aviation Administration provided funding for the research as part of an effort to improve ground deicing of aircraft. A prototype sensor is currently operating experimentally at Denver International Airport.

Moore expects the new technology to be used eventually for a range of commercial and consumer applications. "As this technology is made more efficient through commercial production, its size and cost will gradually go down and it may become as common as a motion sensor," Moore says. "We may see Hotplate technology eventually integrated into the actual structures of our roads, boats, and aircraft."

Because the Hotplate uses no moving parts and requires no maintenance during a storm, it can be placed in difficult-to-access areas. In aviation, this means it can provide accurate readings of snowfall rates precisely at locations, such as runways, where aircraft waiting to take off are most at risk of experiencing dangerous snow and ice build-up. Aircraft operators will then be able to apply the correct amounts of deicing fluids to offer maximum protection during periods of medium to heavy snowfall. The increased efficiency will both ensure public safety and provide airlines with an important cost saving, since a single application of deicing fluids can easily cost about $4,000.

Yankee Environmental Systems is accepting orders for the sensors, which cost about $10,000 apiece. The company, based in Turners Falls, Massachusetts, manufactures remote environmental monitoring equipment for businesses and governments worldwide.

About five inches in diameter, the device consists of two plates warmed by electrical heaters. During storms, it measures the rate of rain or snow by how much power is needed to evaporate precipitation on the upper plate and keep its surface temperature constant. The second plate, positioned directly under the evaporating plate and heated to the same temperature as the top, factors out cooling from the wind.

Airports and other vital transportation centers currently rely on snow gauges with buckets that must be manually emptied during storms. Operators must also set up windshields around the gauges to increase the efficient collection of snow. The Hotplate, which has no moving parts and transmits its measurements electronically, avoids these problems.
The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research manages the National Center for Atmospheric Research under primary sponsorship by the National Science Foundation. The UCAR Foundation was created by UCAR in 1986 to commercialize the organization's knowledge and technology. Hotplate is a trademark of the Foundation.

A nonprofit, statewide division of the University and Community College System of Nevada, DRI pursues a full-time program of basic and applied environmental research on a local, national, and international scale. More than 500 full- and part-time scientists, technicians, and support staff conduct some 150 research projects at DRI annually. More than 85 percent of DRI's annual $37 million operating budget consists of research grants and contracts obtained by its scientists. The balance is received from the state of Nevada for administrative costs.

National Center for Atmospheric Research/University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

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