Phased Array Weather Radar Deployed Down Under for Fighting Bushfires

Achievement date: 
2013
Outcome/accomplishment: 

In January 2013, researchers at the NSF-funded Engineering Research Center (ERC) for Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere (CASA), headquartered at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (UMass), successfully deployed a newly developed phased-array weather radar to South Australia. Field trials are being conducted in collaboration with Australian researchers to demonstrate the radar’s ability to map the fine-scale structure of the wind field surrounding bush fires to support fire fighting.

Impact/benefits: 

Wildfires ravage millions of acres worldwide each year. Fighting these fires is hampered by sudden wind shifts which can fan flames and cause fire lines to change direction unexpectedly. Small phased-array radars have the potential to map these wind shifts and provide critical information to firefighters and evacuation planners during the course of wildfire events. CASA researchers from UMass have teamed with Australian investigators to study this problem in South Australia, where conditions mimic the situation in many parts of the United States. Successful export of CASA’s phased-array weather radar technology to Australia also sets the stage for similar deployments at different countries around the globe, where phased-array radars can also be used to map fires, tornadoes, storms, and other atmospheric and airborne hazards.

Explanation/Background: 

The CASA ERC is advancing the concept of dense networks of small radars that can be deployed on rooftops and communication towers for fine-scale mapping of winds and rain in the lower atmosphere. Such networks do not suffer from earth curvature blockage and other fundamental limitations of today’s large Doppler weather radars. Phased-array antennas are a key enabling technology for these deployments, since, being more like a flat-screen TV, they lack moving parts and do not need costly maintenance in the way that mechanically-scanned radars do. CASA has approached the issues of affordability and exportability of phased arrays by using low-power and commonly-available microwave integrated circuits to design antennas that electronically steer their beams without requiring motors. The goal of this project is to determine the degree to which low-power phased-array radars can map the wind fields surrounding a wildfire. This is a challenging problem when the atmosphere is contaminated by smoke and lofted debris and the particulates move in multiple directions. This problem is being studied in collaboration between UMass, Raytheon Company, and an Australian team comprised of participants from the University of Adelaide, the University of Melbourne, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, the Australian Defense Science and Technology Organization, and Raytheon Australia.

This is the first deployment of CASA’s recently developed phased-array radar outside of the laboratory setting. (A production version of the radar was produced in collaboration with CASA industry partner First RF and the software in collaboration with Raytheon.) A CASA researcher has been detailed to continue working on-site for several months with the international industry-university research team. This successful deployment to Australia thus represents an important milestone not only in development of the phased-array radar itself, but also in having successfully exported the technology internationally.

An earlier NSF grant to CASA for a "Professor of Practice" was essential for this project, in that it enabled the Center to engage the professionals who know how to accomplish the complicated logistics involved in deploying advanced technology to a foreign country.