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New Video Technology Will Help NASA Track Super Storms
By Mike Mitchell

March 4, 2013 - It takes a special kind of pluck to track and chase big bad weather like monstrous Haboob dust storms, hurricanes and tornadoes, and bring back valuable data. But now we can send flying robots to do the job. 

NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have equipped the Global Hawk aircraft, which has no human pilot on board, with advanced data technology including parts designed by GE engineers and turned it into a high-tech storm-chasing machine flying on NASA’s Hurricane Severe Storm Sentinel missions. The aircraft can gather detailed data from ominous clouds and other dangerous places like wildfires. 

The Global Hawk can fly as high as 60,000 feet for as long as 30 hours, and cover over 12,000 miles. Similar military aircraft already gather reconnaissance data and stream video back to base. For NASA and NOAA, though, that’s not good enough. The agencies need detailed, accurate data and high-definition quality video to maneuver the Global Hawk and respond rapidly to changing weather conditions.  


Streaming real-time HD video material from 60,000 feet is a tricky business. But GE engineers have figured it out. Anyone who’s tried to watch TV over the Internet knows that high-quality online videos can get glitchy because computers must constantly buffer the data-rich HD stream. The “Weather Hawk,” however, flies with a GE electronic device called the daq8580. “It is a network-connected box that provides compression for high-definition video from high-up,” says Dan Veenstra from GE Intelligent Platforms.  

When the box receives an HD video frame image from the Global Hawk’s onboard camera, the patented circuits inside the box convert the image into a smaller file – one that’s much less cumbersome to transmit over long distances. The hardware is powerful enough to achieve minimal buffering and can compress video in near real-time.  

As a result the pilot, who controls the aircraft from the ground, can receive live images in less than three quarters of one thousandth of a second. That’s world class. “It allows us to ingest high bandwidth, high resolution video streams from the on-board sensors and compress the data by factors as large as 100:1,” says Don Sullivan, a biospheric science engineer at NASA.



“The reduced bandwidth video feed can then be transmitted over the communication link to the ground station for observation and analysis with negligible impact on image quality. We expect to deploy several more units over the next two years.” The GE team designed the box with simple, rugged architecture. It can accept and pass on data via an Ethernet cable, which makes it easy to integrate with the Global Hawk’s existing systems. The “Weather Hawk” is a good example of what can be done with this kind of technology in the private sector. Just last week, for example, the World Wildlife Fund announced their intention to use unmanned vehicles to help confront an upsurge of illegal poaching.

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