Researchers at Montana State University and their colleagues at the National Center for Atmospheric Research have created new technology that has the potential to vastly increase weather report accuracy in regards to hail storms and other severe weather anomalies.

Kevin Repasky, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in MSU’s Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering and co-inventor of the new weather technology, stated that water vapor is a primary driver of weather, but until recently, scientists have little to no tools to measure it accurately in severe situations.

That’s where the new MSU tech comes in.

The instrument utilizes low-cost lasers to create precise atmospheric water vapor measurements in real-time. This technological advancement could be distributed to weather stations across the country, allowing forecasters to give additional warning to residents, ranchers, gardeners and others to take appropriate precautions in order to minimize the damage caused by severe snow, hail and thunderstorms.

The technology Repasky and his colleagues have created recently won the 2018 Award for Outstanding Accomplishment in Scientific and Technical Advancement from the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. Alongside its direct praise of being “rugged, field-deployable and low-cost,” the technology has been reported to outperform the more expensive and commercially-available tools. But before the recognition, what is the tech’s origin?

Roughly 15-years-ago, Repasky noticed the issue of properly monitoring water vapor, its cost, and started developing ways to solve this issue. The original tools, which were primarily specialized laser tools used from airplanes, were far too expensive to use on a daily basis. In order to help gather more detailed weather reports alongside the laser tech, forecasting scientists would launch weather balloons twice daily across 90 locations. These balloons would provide a glimpse at the current atmospheric water vapor, but not provide any significant real-time details.

Repasky fused cost and efficiency when he designed his tool to interpret the light reflecting from the atmospheric particles and gases using lower-cost lasers. Amin Nehrir, an MSU graduate with a doctorate in electrical engineering assisted Repasky in the building and testing of the first protoypes of the tool. Nehrir also shared the MSU award with Repasky. Nehrir, who is currently a research scientist at NASA’s Langley Research Center, stated better understanding of water vapor’s atmospheric behavior is a priority in the scientific community, and Repasky’s ground-based sensors would cooperate well with their current aircraft sensors in order to provide a “significant impact on forecasting severe weather events.”

Scott Spuler, a research engineer at the National Center for Atmospheric Research stationed in Boulder, Colorado, was surprised and intrigued by the overall production cost of the new MSU water vaper tech, which is a fraction of the cost of the previous sensors. Spuler had previously been working on water vapor technology with German scientists, but established a partnership with Repasky after discovering his research. The collaboration includes Spuler’s team at NCAR, Repasky, and Catharine Bunn, an MSU doctoral student studying physics.

Five of the developed sensors are currently undergoing final testing. The sensors can be remotely monitored for long-term field operations, and Repasky and his team are currently updating the tech to potentially measure atmospheric temperature as well. His plan is to deploy his sensors every 50 or 100 miles on a nationwide grid system.

Montana State University contributed to this report.