Over the radar
15 August 2013
An ambitious in-house engineering project is set to transform the Met Office's radar capabilities.
The Met Office weather radar network is one of the world's longest established networks of its kind, and plays a vital part in providing our customers with timely weather information. However, some of the equipment is nearly 30 years old, and is approaching the end of its working life, limiting our ability to provide new and improved radar products.
"This is one of the most ambitious engineering projects we have ever undertaken. We're not just upgrading the hardware, but the whole capability too."
Five years ago, the Met Office radar systems team started looking at our options to replace the network. The team soon realised that the best way forward would be to develop systems in-house. Having maintained and upgraded the radars for many years, our engineers had built up an unparalleled level of expertise in radar technology.
Flexible and cost-effective
Our engineers developed and built a receiver, a radar signal processor, and a radar control system, and sourced hardware from a range of manufacturers. The solution is based on Open System Architecture, making it much more flexible than the existing network. As technology advances in the future, the radar system will be flexible enough to adapt and upgrade. The solution also brings excellent cost-savings, as it has proved much more cost-effective to develop technology in house rather than source everything from suppliers.
"This is one of the most ambitious engineering projects we have ever undertaken," explains Jacqueline Sugier, the Radar Signal Processing R&D Team Leader. "We're not just upgrading the hardware, but the whole capability too."
Not just hot air
The Met Office is currently working with the University of Reading to develop an innovative forecasting technique first proposed in Canada in the 1990s. Radar pulses travel more slowly through moist air, which means we can use the data provided by the new system to detect humidity. Consequently we will be able to identify not just when storms are happening, but when they are likely to appear.
This is an exciting development that will be beneficial to professional users as well as the general public, and stems from the fact that we have created our own radar solution. "We have complete control of the signals from the raw data right through to the products," explains Jacqueline, "So we can use it to push further the boundaries of research and ultimately improve the quality of our forecasts."
Whereas the old radar network used single polarisation, the new components use dual polarisation. This means the new radar will be polarised both horizontally and vertically, providing much more information on the shape of the target. We can now capture the size and shape of raindrops as well as their composition, for instance ascertaining whether they are water, ice or snow - which will lead to improvement to the accuracy of our rainfall measurements particularly during high impact weather events. The readings are also used to measure wind speed, as any changes in the frequency of the radar signal is indicative of the wind velocity blowing through the rain - in much the same way that the radar signal from a speed camera can indicate the velocity of a speeding car.
A safer working environment
In partnership with the Environment Agency, the new state-of-the-art equipment will be installed at 16 sites across the country, most of which should be fully operational by 2016. While the hardware is being installed we are also taking the opportunity to upgrade the overall structures at the radar stations.
Each site has a tower of anything from 10m to 20m in height, with vertical ladders attached. During deployment we are replacing the vertical ladders with safer means of access, making it easier for engineers to access the radar equipment. Once the towers and access have been updated, it then takes around three weeks to install the system, with another three months for evaluating performance. Every new radar will be left in quarantine while readings are evaluated at our headquarters in Exeter before we make information available to customers.
Customers will benefit from more reliability straight away. "The new system is much less prone to failure than the old one," Jacqueline explains. Our scientists, in partnership with our academic partners, are now developing new algorithms to optimise the information and forecasting that the new system will provide. "We're very pleased with the quality of these new radars and the incremental benefits will start to be rolled out this year," says Jacqueline.
We are already harnessing our knowledge to offer consultancy. For instance, we recently acted as a consultant for the Caribbean Met Office, helping them to specify, select and install five radar systems in the Caribbean. We have also very recently worked closely with the authorities of Sao Tome and Principe - an island off the west coast of Africa - to assess the feasibility of installing a radar system on the island to detect and track tropical storms before they hit their fishing fleets.
The project is an exciting development for the Met Office, furthering our capabilities and delivering a more cost-effective and safer way of working. It has also been an excellent example of best practice at the Met Office. As Jacqueline says, "There is a range of skills needed across the radar team, and the team has been bouncing ideas off one another to develop this innovative solution."