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Business - Investor's Business Daily
Investor's Business Daily
Nanotech May Be At Center Of Hurricane

Tue Sep 7, 7:00 PM ET

Doug Tsuruoka

Experts are often fooled when they try to plot the course of hurricanes such as Frances and Charley, which recently hit Florida.

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Charley, which struck three weeks before this weekend's more predictable Frances disaster, had been expected to strike Tampa. The city was evacuated at a cost of $500,000 to $1 million per mile of coastline.

But the storm veered and came ashore 70 miles south of Tampa, catching authorities off guard.

Weather forecasting, even when it comes to hurricanes, is notoriously inaccurate. Satellites or plane-dropped devices have limited abilities. That's because few data come from inside the storm itself, making it hard to tell what it will do.

Now Ensco, a tech R&D firm in Falls Church, Va., says it has a foolproof way to predict the path of rampaging hurricanes and other severe weather events.

The firm's developing a system that uses helium balloons loaded with molecule-sized sensors.

The NASA (news - web sites)-funded project is still in the design stage.

Analysts say the market for such small gear -- and the science behind it called nanotechnology -- will eventually total billions or even trillions of dollars.

Designs Other Test Systems

The grapefruit-sized balloons are designed to bob around the atmosphere by the thousands, sending data on developing weather patterns.

"These balloons would be everywhere. They would float and become part of the circulation of the storm," said Mark Adams, Ensco's chief engineer.

The $85 million, 700-worker company designs tech systems for defense and civilian customers.

The balloon project is funded by NASA's Institute for Advanced Concepts. A working prototype of the balloon is expected in about two years.

The gas-filled balloons will have a very thin shell, less than 100 microns thick, that have nanotech devices embedded on the surface.

The sensors would be wired to a tiny on-board computer that relays data wirelessly back to meteorologists.

Light, To Add Flight Time

This would provide details on temperature, pressure, moisture and wind speed. These are data that must be collected piecemeal now with other devices.


The total weight of each nanotech-packed balloon would be only 1 or 2 ounces. That would let it float for long periods in the atmosphere.

Adams says Ensco plans to yank production costs down so the balloons can be produced by the thousands. "They would be so cheap, they would be disposable," he said.

The nanosensors that will be part of the balloon's skin are still in development.

But Adams doesn't foresee any problems.

He says there's been plenty of progress in making miniature sensors that use nanotech parts, especially ones that integrate tiny devices on the surface of a silicon chip.

Adams says such tiny sensors that sense temperature, humidity and pressure are already on the market.

John Manobianco, Ensco's director of advanced nanotechnology, says inventions like nano-balloons will turn disaster-preparedness into a more exact science.

He says cities and individuals can avoid wasting time and money on useless evacuations. On the flip side, more accurate predictions can save lives and property.

"If you could narrow the area in which a hurricane is expected to strike by just five or 10 miles, at a savings of about $1 million per mile, you can do the math and figure out how much money you can save," Manobianco said.

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