A 3D Printed Ultrasonic Sensor to Warn About Hazardous Weather Conditions

Published on May 10, 2022 by Madeleine P.
3D printed ultrasonic sensor

The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) is behind a project called 3D-PAWS (3D Printed Automatic Weather Station), which uses 3D printing to design tools and instruments to enable earlier detection of high-impact weather events. The teams are presenting their latest achievement, a conical-shaped ultrasonic sensor protected by a 3D printed shell. It will allow to better measure not only the streamflow and snowfalls but also storm surges and the link in order to better protect populations in areas that are prone to hazardous weather.

3D-PAWS was launched 5 years ago with the goal of making weather data collection more accessible. One of the project leaders of this initiative, Paul Kucera, explains, “Our goal is to enable our end users to make and sustain their own networks rather than getting commercial sensors, which could cost several thousand dollars.” One way to lower the total cost of these tools is through additive manufacturing. That way, anyone can create their own instruments. The project started with weather stations to get more data on humidity, precipitation, pressure and even temperature. Already, 3D-PAWS has been equipped regions such as Barbados, Kenya, Uganda and Zambia.

A 3D printed weather station installed in Zambia (photo credits: 3D-PAWS)

After initial success with these weather stations, 3D-PAWS is now focusing on something new: remote sensing. The goal is to design a system that could detect streamflow changes, sudden storm surge rising on the shore, and snowfall in remote mountain areas. Martin Steinson, mechanical engineer and designer of the 3D-PAWS instruments, adds, “We are getting much closer to creating a useful warning system. We will be able to combine weather stations and stream gauges to provide information that can impact people’s daily lives.” From there, the ultrasonic sensor was born, protected by a 3D printed shell with an acrylic polymer. The project members have remained tight-lipped about the printing phase and the solutions employed.

At any rate, the sensor should make it easier to predict flooding and snowmelt runoff. Specifically, it uses sound waves to send and receive pulses and measures the time it takes between sending and receiving on the water surface to measure the change in water height. The final system remains easy to install, handle and repair, which was one of the main objectives of 3D-PAWS: to allow any remote area to deploy and maintain its detection system. Several field tests have already been carried out: in two weeks, a sensor measured a record snowfall of 5.4 meters and was not damaged.

On the left, a sensor installed in the Dominican Republic; on the right, a sensor successfully installed to test its capabilities (photo credits: Paul Kucera)

Other installations have been successfully completed, and project members are already thinking about future 3D printed instruments, especially for monitoring air quality. You can read more about this HERE.

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