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3D Printing Could Help Developing Countries Predict Natural Disasters

The development of more affordable, 3D printed equipment could save lives

(Kelly Sponberg/NOAA)
smithsonian.com

The poorest countries tend to be the most vulnerable to natural disasters, in part because they do not have adequate tools to see them coming. Predicting events like big storms or floods requires weather stations full of sensors and equipment, all of which can cost as much as tens of thousands of dollars. But researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and USAID think they can soon offer a far cheaper solution.

These researchers have been experimenting with 3D-printed forecasting tools, and they say a station stocked with thier tools should only cost about $200, reports Popular Science. That's far less than even most home weathers stations on the market, which run from hundreds to thousands of dollars. To top it off, they will be able to reduce the maintenance costs when something in the weather station breaks: because most of the parts are printed, it will be far easier to make replacements locally.

USAID describes the process of putting a weather station together:

First, Martin Steinson, a UCAR project manager and mechanical engineer, creates 3D computer designs for every part of a weather station. Then, a microwave-size 3D printer turns these designs into reality – melting thick coils of plastic into thin threads that layer on top of one another to form the components of a fully functional, sophisticated weather station. The printing is so precise that once all the pieces are printed, they can be assembled by hand and the new weather station finally brought online.

In the field, the station collects measurements related to temperature, pressure, humidity, rainfall and wind that are stored in a tiny computer about the size of an iPhone. From here, the data can be transmitted to weather experts, who will use it for their forecasts.

After testing the stations in Boulder, Colo., last summer, the researchers presented their findings at the United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction last month. Now, they plan to launch a pilot project in Zambia.

These stations won’t only be useful in times of crisis; for example, daily weather reports could help farmers know what to expect to increase their years. “In the U.S. weather is very accessible. You can turn on the news, look online, or use an app on your phone. It’s easy to take for granted the ability to check the weather,” project manager Kelly Sponberg said. “But in many developing countries, weather forecasting has been limited because of the high cost of weather systems.” 

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