Even in a wired world, some simple data is still surprisingly hard to get–like how much it rains.
The basic rain gauge has been around for hundreds of years, and it’s still a standard tool used by agencies like the National Weather Service to help predict flooding and monitor droughts. But gauges are expensive to maintain, and there are only a few thousand in the entire world that can actually report data in real time. That’s not enough for an accurate picture of the weather.
A team of Dutch scientists wants to use the crowd instead, by turning umbrellas into mini weather-monitoring stations. Every time it rains, smart umbrellas would use sensors to detect falling drops, and then use Bluetooth to send a report to a smartphone app. As people walk around with umbrellas throughout a city during a storm, each app would send in data to a central system where meteorologists could use it to come up with better predictions.
“Since I use umbrellas a lot, the idea to measure the sound that raindrops make on the canvas of an umbrella feels logical to me,” says Rolf Hut, who is working on the project at Delft University of Technology. “Agencies need very accurate rainfall measurements, and the network of stationary gauges is limited. This is where the umbrellas would really help: providing more on the ground measurements that, when combined with existing sources of information, will provide a better measurement of rainfall.”
Even though umbrellas are usually outside only for a brief part of a storm, Hut says the information they collect can still be useful. And it doesn’t necessarily take a huge crowd to work. “Any little bit helps,” he explains. “A few–five to 10–per city would dramatically increase the resolution of rainfall measurements that we have. The more the merrier, though.”
The smart umbrella is still a prototype for now. Hut is working on waterproofing the device, calibrating it, integrating into the design of an umbrella, and refining the software that delivers the data. He hopes that someday the technology could be incorporated into every umbrella, or at least the higher-end designs.
It isn’t the only project to look at new solutions for measuring rain. Others are trying to use windshields on cars to do the same thing. And another Dutch team has used mobile phone towers to map rainfall, by looking at how cellular signals are disrupted in a storm. It’s a technique that might be easier to cheaply deploy over large areas in places like sub-Saharan Africa, where there are even fewer gauges in place.