SENDAI, Japan — This March marked the third U.N. World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, an international gathering of officials and experts working to make the world more resilient in the face of natural disasters. In 2013, natural disasters killed 22,000 people and affected 97 million more with nearly $118 billion in damages. As part of the conference that Sendai hosted, a showcase presented an unassuming bit of technology that could save countless lives.
It looks more like a toy than a life-saving technology. The plastic pieces are plain and white, their connections to each other seem jury-rigged at best and the shapes of the data-measuring devices resemble building blocks and science kits. But these assemblies of plastic and programming will provide a service that has never been reliably given to the developing world—they are going to predict the weather.
Flash floods are an all-too-common form of natural disaster, especially in developing countries. According to USAID, flooding was the most common form of natural disaster-related death in 2013. In most cases, however, flooding can be predicted using basic meteorological tools. If a flood-prone community knows a storm is coming, they can evacuate and prepare.
Unfortunately, weather stations are expensive. It can cost tens of thousands of dollars to build a station, and even more to train personnel. Even when it’s fully functional, a weather station requires maintenance and repairs that can be hard to afford. As with most technology, commercial weather stations are constantly being updated as new versions are released, which means a community with a very old station may not be able to find a discontinued part if it breaks.
The newest generation of weather stations does not have these problems. For about $200, a community can buy some inexpensive electronics and a set of plans, and then print themselves a weather station. 3D printers are able to quickly, accurately and cheaply produce most of the parts needed for a basic weather station, and the pieces are so precise and simple that they can be assembled by hand.
Martin Steinson, a mechanical engineer and project manager with University Corporation for Atmospheric Research Joint Office Science Support, or UCAR JOSS, has created 3D computer plans for every part of a weather station. By using his plans, a 3D printer melts thin threads of plastic off of a thick coil, and rapidly assembles the parts by layering the plastic threads on top of each other. With very little training, a person can hook up the printed components and a few electronic sensors to a Raspberry Pi, a computer the size of a credit card. Data can then be collected.
Zambia will receive the first of these stations this summer. Zambia’s National Weather Service will receive laptops containing the 3D designs for each part, a couple of 3D printers and all the tools, materials and training necessary to get the weather station off the ground.
“The bottom line is that 3D printing will help to save lives,” said Sezin Tokar, a hydrometeorologist with USAID/OFDA. “Not only can they provide countries with the ability to more accurately monitor for weather-related disasters, the data they produce can also help reduce the economic impact of disasters.”
– Marina Middleton