Building a Better Nexrad Radar

 - February 27, 2009, 8:51 AM

While it might be a name unfamiliar to many pilots, Baron Services is well known in meteorology circles. The company was originally formed out of a research project with NASA in the late 1980s that dealt with reporting of highly localized lightning data. Baron later expanded the display technology, incorporating radar data to create its first storm-tracking system. The storm tracker was unique in that it was the first to show storms at a localized level with estimated times of arrival for a given community. It was also the first tracking system to combine radar imagery with lightning data.

In the mid-1990s Baron expanded into the display and analysis of Nexrad radar data, the Internet display of weather information, and later into the development of an in-house line of radars called XDD (Xtreme Digital Definition) that are used today by a number of TV stations. More recently, the company received a government contract to upgrade 171 Nexrad sites operated by the National Weather Service, FAA and Department of Defense using so-called dual-polarization technology, intended to provide improvements in rainfall estimation and hail detection and more accurately portray rain showers and falling snow.

Through a partnership with L-3 Communications, Baron Services recently completed the critical design review phase of the National Weather Service’s Nexrad upgrade to the dual-polarization technology. In preparation for testing scheduled to start next month, the L-3/Baron team is assembling components for those first radar site enhancements. The two companies presented the results of a year-long design phase to more than 100 government officials last October as part of the $43 million government contract.

The dual-polarimetric radar technology Baron Services has patented sends out two beams, one in the horizontal plane and the other in the vertical. The radar listens for those separate signals to come back and measures the difference between what is received vertically versus horizontally. That allows for highly accurate processing capable of determining what kind of precipitation the beam is striking, whether it is small or large raindrops, ice, snow or hail. That hasn’t been possible with conventional Nexrad radar. The dual-polarimetric radar will also will be more precise in discovering where icing conditions exist.

There is a lot of discussion about what to do in the NextGen era with regard to weather detection capability. The biggest concern at this point, said Baron Services founder Robert Baron, should be in filling gaps that exist in radar information, mainly in the west where mountains block the radar beam. “There are many locations where we’re not getting 100-percent radar coverage,” he said. “The solution is adding radar sites. They don’t even have to be big Nexrad radars. We could have what used to be called ‘gap fillers.’” There are a handful of such radars in use today, Baron said, adding that while the government has done a good job of placing Nexrad radars in locations that minimize coverage gaps, these smaller units could help “fill in the picture,” in areas where coverage is lacking.