Microweather: The surprising future of microwave links in weather forecasting

Today we feature a guest blog from Jan Hederén, Strategic Tracker, PDU L5G, Product And Architecture, Development Unit Radio at Ericsson.

It might come as a surprise to many, but the mobile network system can offer substantial improvements to weather information gathering. To put the concept to the test, Ericsson and partners have conducted a pilot MicroWeather study showing that microwave links can offer accurate hyper local information about rain.

The pilot shows that rain measurements can be done at far better resolution with higher accuracy than other methods and be deployed globally to support millions of people living in areas where current technologies have not been deployed due to high costs.

Natural law – a cloud for real
Microwave links are almost everywhere you can find mobile masts and base stations. Altogether, there are about four million microwave links in operation on the planet. Each and every one of those links can act both as a perfect mobile broadband transmitter and as a rain gauge, detecting if (and how much) rain is falling in the hop. This takes advantage of natural laws, where electromagnetic waves in the 10-100 GHz microwave bands are slightly weakened by rain.

The tiny attenuation on the link caused by the rain is processed in the network and, by combining it with information from links in the entire grid, a high resolution picture of the rain can be plotted and mapped. In a way, one can say that this is a good example of how the virtual mobile network cloud discloses the real clouds.

Rain is expensive to detect
The Microweather pilot conducted in the Swedish city of Gothenburg is described in the June 2016 issue of Ericsson Mobility Report. Over an eight month period, data from about 300 microwave links were monitored every tenth of a second (without affecting transmission), which gave a very detailed picture of rainfalls in the city. In fact, the microwave links offered a very accurate picture of how, when, and how much it rained in different parts of Gothenburg – almost on par with rain gauges.

The results from this pilot hold great promise for the future. In particular, the quality in resolution and accuracy shows that microwave weather radar systems can be a valuable rain detection tool on a global scale.

Weather proofing business
The business impact of regular weather is profound, and this applies to both rich and poor regions.

The US government research organization National Science Foundation (NSF) has shown, for example, that US society is far from weather proof. Every business (as well as the public sector) is affected by bad weather. In an NSF study published in 2011, researchers estimated the level of sensitivity of the US economy to weather to be 3.4 percent of GDP, or roughly USD 500 billion.

We can’t change the weather – but local and detailed information now – and forecasted short term – may mitigate some part of its impacts. And the Microweather solution can support this ambition of weatherproofing business and the society in several key areas, such as:

  • City water management: Optimize city water systems – in real time and everywhere. The sewage system for waste water is one of the most expensive infrastructures in cities. Optimizing the system to cope with heavy rain offers savings.
  • Agriculture: More than one-third of the food produced today is lost or wasted. The value of the wasted/lost food is USD 750 billion, according to United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The losses are found over the food production and distribution chain – temperature, humidity and other weather-related parameters are all factors.
  • Finance, insurance, and real estate: Protecting assets from weather-related damage and calculating risks – better  understanding of weather impacts the insurance sector in terms of private and business losses (due to flooding, storm damage, and other events).
  • Manufacturing: Flow without weather disturbance – on time and on demand. Manufacturing is affected by weather in several ways, such as influencing the arrival of goods and employees at production sites.
  • Services: Forecasting optimal support and offerings based on needs. Weather-related disturbances impact the need for staffing and can impact delivery of services, such as electrical power. It is also important to have help-desks staffed and well informed.
  • Energy: Local weather directly affects production and consumption of energy. Weather-related energy sources like solar and wind power are obviously directly impacted by weather, but the energy needs for heating and cooling of a building are also dependent on hyper local conditions.
  • Retail: Forecast the need to offer weather-related products. Consumer behaviors are to some extent dependent on the weather. This goes for food (such as ice-cream) and clothes (such as jackets and scarfs). Super-local offerings are possible for retailers if and when they have accurate weather information.
  • Transportation: Weather-related obstacles delay people and goods.

Go extreme – but offer early warning
So far the examples I’ve offered have been about traditional, good old bad weather.  But with climate change, the extreme weather impact will increase and alerts to people in emergencies (such as flooding and severe storms) will save both lives and money.

Twenty years ago, the estimated annual cost of weather-related issues was USD 50 billion, but that figure has risen rapidly and today the World Bank puts the annual cost of extreme weather at USD 200 billion, with more than 80% of disasters weather or water related.

But the Microweather concept offers some relief, in the form of new and improved monitoring of local weather in combination with precise alerts to people and businesses in hazardous situations. It’s another great example of how the Networked Society can bring new value in often unexpected ways.

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