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Engineers and scientists in the National Center for Atmospheric Research's (NCAR) Earth Observing Laboratory (EOL) received recognition for innovative dropsonde technology at the 2011 Colorado Governor's Award for High-Impact Research. In mid-November, Governor John Hickenlooper honored Terrence Hock and his group for their novel work on dropsonde technology. Over the past five years Hock and his team have led a series of developments that transformed dropsonde technology used worldwide and expanded its use to new dropsonde delivery systems.
A dropsonde is a weather reconnaissance device dropped from an aircraft or balloon from high altitude to accurately measure profiles of the state of atmosphere. As it descends by parachute, the dropsonde measures wind, atmospheric pressure, temperature, and humidity. These measurements are radioed back to the aircraft or balloon in real time, and are then relayed to the ground. The observations are quickly used in weather forecast models around the world. Dropsonde observations are often collected from regions where scientists would otherwise not have access, and have proven critical in research on atmospheric dynamics, and frequently supply timely information on storms and other weather events that benefit society.
The new technology has so far been applied in three forms, the first being the Airborne Vertical Atmospheric Profiling System (AVAPS-II), an aircraft dropsonde system used worldwide for atmospheric research and operational meteorology; the National Weather Service uses AVAPS-II for hurricane-track and intensity forecasting, for example. The second dropsonde advance is seen in the NCAR Driftsonde system. This system consists of a constellation of stratospheric balloons that can drift with the wind for weeks or months, with each balloon delivering up to 50 dropsondes. These Driftsondes collected an unprecedented amount of data over Antarctica in the recent Concordiasi experiment. Lastly, the fully automatic NASA/NOAA Global Hawk (GH) unmanned aircraft (UA) dropsonde system extends aircraft dropsonde use to higher altitudes and longer flight durations than ever before possible. The GH Dropsonde system is the only UA system in existence and holds the record for number of dropsondes released during a single flight.
GPS dropsondes were invented at NCAR to fill critical observing needs both for the university atmospheric research community and to support federal agencies in their mission to protect life and property from severe weather.