Since the 1930s, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, have been launching weather balloons from their National Weather Service (NWS) offices across the United States. That’s almost 90 years of collecting temperatures, humidity and other data in the upper atmosphere from the radiosondes that are attached to these balloons. Today, all 92 NWS offices launch a weather balloon twice a day, and twelve hours apart.
Recently the NOAA announced a pilot program in Alaska to transition from manual launches of these weather balloons to an automated method. These autolaunch systems are being deployed to 13 sites in Alaska through July 2020, some of them are already being used.
Using similar technology as the NOAA, the Met Office in Nottingham, England also use an automated balloon launch system. The video below shows how it works.
According to the NOAA, here are the six reasons why automated launches are better than manual ones:
- They save money: about $1 million in taxes is expected to be saved each year. Also, the purchase and installation of these systems are already funded by the sale of government spectrum.
- They save time: the staff spend up to four hours each day preparing and launching these balloons while they could be spending time elsewhere, like forecasting.
- Data quality and availability is improved: staff shortages would no longer be an issue with automation. It will also make it easier to launch these balloons up to four times a day if conditions warrant.
- Work in a wide range of climates and environments: according to the NOAA, “autolaunch technology has been proven effective worldwide over the last 20 years, from the sweltering Australian outback to sub-Arctic Finnish Lapland. Initial tests in Kodiak, Alaska, show that autolaunchers are as effective as launches by hand and have a 98-percent success rate, which beats the agency’s target by two percent.”
- Provide longer career tracks for NWS employees: employees who focus mainly on launching the weather balloons will be able to switch to a better career path with greater growth potential.
- They operate on autopilot: These autolaunches can contain up to 24 balloons, a supply of up to 12 days before they have to be restocked: “Restocking the autolauncher with balloons, gas and radiosondes only requires about an hour to accomplish.”