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UMaXX Radar Providing Invaluable Weather Data to National Weather Service Regional Headquarters

UMass eXperimental X-band radar (UMaXX)

UMaXX

The UMass eXperimental X-band radar (UMaXX), a collaborative effort between the Microwave Remote Sensing Laboratory (MIRSL) and the Engineering Research Center for Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere (CASA), is now providing a groundbreaking data feed from the UMaXX radar on Orchard Hill to the National Weather Service's (NWS) Eastern Regional Headquarters. The radar data will be used by NWS regional forecast offices – principally in the Boston, Albany, and Portland areas – and are viewable in near real time.

“In the Pioneer Valley, the beams from the current NWS NEXRAD radars in Boston and Albany are scanning about a mile above the ground,” says Frasier, a professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Department and co-director of MIRSL. “Scans that high can miss important weather features. In contrast, the beams from UMaXX scan much lower to the ground and provide more detailed data.” 

While the NWS is getting its own special feed for CASA data, the data are also available on the web. Already some TV meteorologists in the area are using the data. For example, meteorologist Jacob Wycoff from Western Mass News says employing CASA data has been very helpful.

"As a broadcast meteorologist, we need to make decisions in real-time to alert our viewers,” explains Wycoff. “The UMaXX radar has been crucial in filling-in the radar gap, allowing us to be more accurate and confident during severe weather."

ECE Department Head Christopher Hollot also made use of UMaXX during a storm in mid-July. “As testimony,” Hollot says, “I used UMaXX to track a thunder-boomer Saturday afternoon. UMaXX told me that it would pass north of my location and hence I could remain outdoors doing strenuous yardwork. It was right-on…unfortunately. Thanks, UMaXX!”

During that same thunderstorm, CASA Senior Research Fellow Apoorva Bajaj and his son employed UMaXX data for a valuable Learning experience.

“My six-year-old and I were glued to the computer and watched the storm on Saturday pass over our house in Florence,” recalls Bajaj. “I had the Google Maps satellite view turned on, so we could see our house on the map and were watching how the radar image turned from blue to green to yellow, indicating increasing rain rate, as the shower passed directly over us.”

Bajaj adds that “My son, who is generally very worried during storms, seemed to calm down, as he got a better idea of where the storm was and how it was moving away from us. And yes, we went into the yard right after, to see if we could find rainbows (and talk about how they are formed).”

CASA Senior Research Fellow Brenda Philips even used the UMaXX information to help keep her husband, a private pilot who was flying that weekend, safe from the storm.

MIRSL students and engineers recently installed two radar systems, UMaXX and Skyler, on the Orchard Hill tower at the UMass Amherst campus. UMaXX uses current technology. A pedestal spins an antenna that moves up and down and sends out two electronic beams. 

Skyler, a phased-array radar on loan to UMass from Raytheon, represents next generation technology. Skyler has no moving parts. Instead, a flat panel – about the size of a big screen TV– emits 2,560 electronic beams that can be configured and steered electronically.

Frasier and his students are using the two radars to characterize how phased-array radar observations differ from current technology. He’s been awarded a grant for this research by the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences. See the MIRSL website for a more detailed description of the UMaXX and Skyler radars.

As Frasier explains, “A benefit of this research is that the local NWS gets to use the UMaXX data as storms occur in the [Pioneer Valley] region. We are building on an existing collaboration that CASA has developed with the NWS in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where they operate a network of similar X-band radars.”

The Texas-based NWS forecasters regularly use the CASA data to issue tornado and flash-flood warnings for the greater Dallas-Fort Worth region. CASA and Raytheon have developed standard processes and file formats so that X-band radar data (such as that produced by CASA) can be observed on NWS decision support software.

CASA engineer Eric Lyons explains that it was straightforward to replicate the processes developed in Texas for use by the NWS Offices in Boston, Albany, and Portland, and also for NOAA Eastern Region Headquarters.

“We’re excited to have an X-band radar located in the Pioneer Valley again,” says Eric, who operated a research X-Band in the same Orchard Hill location from 2005 to 2013. “And, thanks to a recent NSF Campus Cyberinfrastructure grant, we can now support a live feed to the weather service, which was not possible in the past.” (August 2019)