DOW – Not Just a Chemical Company

Today, more about the Vortex 2 project and how Lenovo is helping. DOW stands for Doppler on Wheels, an invention by Dr. Wurman. There are many powerful fixed Doppler radar installations located around the country. Your local TV station likely has one and likes to tell you at every opportunity how powerful theirs is. (I'm sure you know this, but usually the name "Doppler 5000" is just the TV station number multiplied by 1000. It's marketing at its best.) So why bother with mobile radar when fixed radar is so much more powerful? As Dr. Wurman describes it, imagine looking at a hand. If you are across the parking lot from that hand, you can see that it is a hand, but that's about it. When that hand is in your face, you can see that it has fingernails and prints. In a word, detail. Mobile DOWs are designed to be deployed at the front line of a storm to gather better data than is possible when the Doppler is miles away. These DOWs are very specialized vehicles, designed by Dr. Wurman and team. They start with a basic truck bed and then custom build everything themselves. For example, the rotating radar is a reclaimed World War II gunnery turret. As you can see in the picture below, the vehicles have jacks to get a bit of height, but more importantly, to make the radar level. I had no idea that azimuth and tilt would affect the quality of data, but according to the team, they greatly affect the results. To compensate, the truck has a sophisticated system that detects and distributes a correction signal that is later concatenated with the data in post processing. One of the Lenovo PCs is dedicated to collecting and managing this process. After the season is over, our workstations will integrate the data streams as the CSWR team models the weather patterns in the off-season. I asked a few obvious questions, like "how dangerous is it to stand in front of the radar while it is in operation?" Dr. Wurman replied that while it is not recommended, it really isn't too dangerous. The Doppler inside is only about 250 watts. They don't allow pregnant women and children to stand in front of them, but his children have all of their toes. There is story among meteorologists that weather people have more girls than boys. He told me that he's certainly adding to that legend based on his family composition.

I also asked, "Do you have to stop at weigh stations?" Dr. Wurman said "We are not exactly sure. The times we have stopped at them, we've been questioned as to why we stopped. When we blow by them, we've been pulled over for not stopping. Most of the local police are used to seeing these by now, and we only generally get stopped when someone is curious to see what we're doing." The trucks themselves are just under the magic 26,000 pound limit. For those of you not familiar with truck laws, once a vehicle tops 26,000 pounds, special rules apply. You need to pay more taxes. Your drivers need special permits. You are also limited to only so many hours of operation per day. Those rules make sense for a commercial operator, but imagine having to pack up in the middle of a storm because the driver was about to go over time. Two of the DOWs in the field this year have rapid scanning capability. They transmit 12 simultaneous beams to collect data every 5 – 10 seconds. These will be able to sample rapid tornado changes and genesis so that the team gets a better picture of what is happening. Of course, that multiplies the amount of data, requiring more computer power. So much computing power in fact, that there are eight Lenovo ThinkCentre M58p desktops inside crunching away. Each PC performs a different function focused on helping running the weather observatory and radar operations, providing Internet to the team, aiding navigation, translating data, and tracking the CSWR fleet. Some of these PCs are connected to our 22" and 24" high resolution widescreen displays, also mounted inside the DOW trucks. [caption id="attachment_524" align="alignnone" width="225" caption="Display screens inside the DOW"]

Here's another view inside DOW #7. There's space for three people to sit and work in the back.

Besides the DOWs, Dr. Wurman's team has 14 Tornado Pods, which are designed to be dropped right in the path of the storm.

Once the team has made their best estimate of how they expect the storm to track, they roll into action. Getting out ahead of the storm, they lay these down several hundred feet apart. The team practices so that they can deploy each pod in 45 seconds or less. These pods are intentionally simple in design so that they can be made cheaply and in volume. The base itself is weighted down (120 lbs. / 54kg or so) so that it (hopefully) doesn't blow away. Most important among the instruments is the anemometer, which measures wind velocity and direction at ground level. The white bellows looking object houses the thermometer, shielding it from direct rain and sun, which can influence the results. Looking more closely at the picture, you can see two Pelican cases which protect some of the instruments. One of them houses a high definition video camera. All of the data gets routed to the yellow box at the base of the system. This is designed to protect the data so that even if the pod itself is destroyed, the data should remain intact. They even go so far as to mount things upside down so that, in theory, there is a protective air bubble inside to keep out water and reduce shock to the equipment. The team would be overjoyed if one of these pods was run over by a tornado. The Tornado Pods are deployed by several modified pickup trucks, and if I remember correctly, each truck can deploy four Pods.

The pods sit on the truck bed, and the canopy has been pre-wired with data cables. When the pods are later picked up after the storm, the team collects the telemetry data. Dr. Wurman's team is primarily focused on wind speed, humidity, temperature, and pressure, but the beauty of the Vortex 2 project is that since there are so many teams in the field, each team is able to focus on different things. There are teams using lasers to measure raindrop size. Others are looking at particle distribution and size. The teams will later be able to share data and include it in their analysis. Putting it all together will result in massive data sets requiring lots of processing power to churn through. Inside the trucks are two Lenovo ThinkPads. The front mounted machine is a ThinkPad W500 workstation. Its job is to run navigation, mapping, and tornado tracking software. The driver and navigator will use this in real time.

The team sitting in the back seat will use a ThinkPad T400 machine. This is the machine that actually collects the data from the tornado pods. It also runs diagnostic and programming software to keep them up and running. The team has to be able to solve problems in the field, so reliability is critical. So is data integrity, so they use solid state drive technology so they don't have to worry about hard disk drive head crashes as they jostle down roads. Technically a spinning drive could work, but the Active Protection System would be constantly kicking in, causing unacceptable wait states as the drive would pause until it sensed things were safe again.

In the end, Dr. Wurman's team's goal is to image the winds inside a tornado. Since the first Vortex project over 10 years ago, the team has learned how to ask better questions. Lenovo is proud to be a part of allowing this team to do its job.