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'Big Brother' on highways? Nope, just 'weather boxes'

Image: Weather box atop truck
A "weather box" is installed atop the cab of a Freightliner truck. Precipitation and skylight sensors are on the outer casing; temperature, pressure, relative humidity and ozone sensors are inside. The box is made by Weather Telematics of Ottawa, Canada.Global Science & Technology, Inc.
/ Source: msnbc.com

If you're rolling down the highway and see a big rig with a camera-like device attached to the cab, fear no evil: it's not Big Brother, but a mobile weather station.

For all the billions of dollars invested in weather forecasts and reports, highway-sized gaps in weather conditions still exist across the nation. Aiming to plug those, the National Weather Service is funding mobile stations atop hundreds of trucks, large vans and buses that instantly transmit the weather at ground level.

"It's not practical to put a site every few meters down the road," Curtis Marshall, the NWS manager for the $5 million project, tells msnbc.com. "But if you view the vehicle as the site then it opens up a whole lot of opportunities."

Since last March, "weather boxes" have been added to some 600 vehicles and are being tracked by Global Science & Technology, Inc., a private contractor running the test. By October, that should be up to some 1,500 vehicles, mostly from private trucking and package delivery fleets.

The data so far is being used for forecasting, but it has the potential to provide local jurisdictions with information like whether a road needs to be salted because of ice.

"While traveling down the highway, observations are taken every 1,000 feet, which provide tremendous detail," says Paul Heppner, the project manager on GST's side. "These mobile platform observations supplement fixed site locations, such as airports and road weather sensors, which might be dozens of miles apart."

"The mobile platforms really serve as probes," he adds. "They uncover cold pockets of air in valleys, or areas of fog and precipitation" that stationary radar often misses. "Many times, radar overshoots the tops of low-level precipitation."

GST is also thinking beyond trucks and beyond just weather.

"Microsensing technology can be installed on other platforms such as passenger cars ... trains, and even people," says GST Vice President Brian Bell. "Furthermore, other sensors can be added to the 'weather box' that extend environmental sampling to air quality, security (chemical, biological, radiological elements), and energy (solar intensity)."

Still, the idea of mobile sensors might lead some to ask if there's also the potential for a "Big Brother" intrusion into one's privacy.

Heppner notes that the National Weather Service is not given the vehicle ID numbers or routes, so that "anonymity is preserved."

And the American Civil Liberties Union, which looked at the technology at msnbc.com's request, said it did not see any privacy issues.

An early backer was a lawyer at the agency that regulates the U.S. Postal Service, seeing it as a way to make some much needed cash.

"What if they (USPS vehicles) were fitted with sensors to collect and transmit information about weather or air pollutants," Michael Ravnitzky, chief counsel to the Postal Regulatory Commission chairman, asked in a New York Times opinion piece last December. "The trucks would go from being bulky tools of industrial-age communication to being on the cutting edge of 21st-century information-gathering and forecasting."

Marshall notes that what's being tried on road vehicles has long been used on aircraft, which provide data to complement the more traditional approach of weather balloons.

But taking it from a project to long-term deployment isn't a sure thing, either, given the cost. "There's always a question of that," Marshall says, and "we're not quite there yet in costing it out" long term.