GPS Innovation Gives Weather Bots a New Ride

Warren Jackson, an engineering graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, never cared all that much about the weather. Yet when he scanned news reports about how the National Weather Service and independent researchers collected weather data, some facts didn't make sense.

For a long time, the weather service has collected most of its information using weather balloons that carry a device to measure items like pressure, wind and humidity. When the balloon reaches about 100,000 feet and pressure causes it to pop, the device falls and lands a substantial distance from its launch point. The National Weather Service and researchers sometimes look for the $200 devices, but of the 80,000 sent up annually, they chalk up many as lost.

Convinced there had to be a better way, Jackson began last summer designing a GPS-equipped robot that launches a parachute after the balloon pops, and brings the device back down to Earth, landing it at a predetermined location set by the researchers. The parachute will be easily maneuverable. "It's like a skydiver's parachute," Jackson says.

The idea has so much promise that Penn's Weiss Tech House—a university organization that encourages students to innovate and bring their ideas to market—awarded Jackson and some fellow graduate engineering students first prize in its third annual PennVention Contest, giving them $5,000 to further develop the idea. Jackson's team and nine other finalists also got access to expert advice on prototyping, legal matters and branding.

In its work to support young inventors, Weiss Tech House enjoys the support of faculty from across the university (including the Wharton School, and the law and engineering schools) and more than 100 industry leaders. Judges for the PennVention contest include the director of vendor relations for QVC. In three years, Weiss Tech House has helped students launch 14 businesses, including First Flavor and Humanistic Robotics. As for Jackson's invention, he and his partners will do testing this summer before creating a production model and courting buyers.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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