Digital Video for Atmospheric and Environmental Science

In a research aircraft flying 100 meters to 10 kilometers above the earth's surface, scientists and graduate students gather around workstations to observe and analyze atmospheric conditions. They are on a mission to study the atmosphere, ocean, and terrestrial ecosystems to predict weather and assess environmental changes around the world.

These scientists use video to evaluate conditions around them such as the forms of nearby clouds and the earth surface below. The aircraft is outfitted with three video cameras. One faces forward from the cockpit; one looks out to the side through a window; and one points down to the earth. The video feeds are linked into scientists' workstations through Parallax video cards so the scientists can observe the cloud morphology and terrestrial environment while evaluating other data.

Our Global Environment

The scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) gather and analyze information in flights of two to 10 hours. The scientists are studying issues that affect us all: weather prediction, air pollution, ozone depletion, global warming, and other aspects of the global environment. And the data they gather is available to scientists all over the world.

Scientists at NCAR look at many kinds of quantitative data gathered in flight, including temperature, pressure, humidity, water content of clouds, ice particles, air turbulence, ozone, aerosols, and carbon dioxide. Video from the three cameras adds important data on what kinds of clouds are present and what type of terrain is below. "Scientists sitting in the back with the instruments need to see what's happening up front," says research scientist Darrel Baumgardner. "Video is helpful because of limited viewing windows inside the cabin." When scientists see an interesting condition, they can direct the pilot to fly through it to pick up more data and use flight time effectively.

Adding Video to an Application

Software engineer Gary Horton of NCAR used Parallax Graphics' software development tools to add live video to NCAR's existing workstation-based data display tool, WINDS (WINdow Display System). WINDS tracks real-time flight conditions, and the scientists needed live video to add a visual sense of the surrounding environment. Horton says, "The Video Development Environment was simple to use and well-documented. We're very pleased with the results."

About NCAR

Founded in 1960, NCAR supports worldwide research in meteorology, atmospheric and oceanic sciences, and the global environment. NCAR is based in Boulder, Colorado and has 850 employees. The National Science Foundation sponsors NCAR through a non-profit organization called the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR).

Image Enhancement

NCAR scientists plan to use TerraScan software to enhance and analyze captured video stills as well as satellite images. Scientists will be able to extract data from the video to evaluate the density of vegetation, conditions of polar ice packs, and reflective properties of clouds.

Scientists monitor data in real-time during the flight, but after the flight, they examine the data again more carefully. Right now, video is stored on VCR tape, so it is not linked directly to other data. Horton plans to add real-time digital video capture and playback to synchronize data of all types. Horton also plans to use Paradise Software's Uniflix to distribute video in-flight across the network of up to five or more workstations on the aircraft. And Baumgardner wants to set up a live satellite network link from the plane to the ground, to transmit video and other data.

"Incorporating video for science applications fits very naturally," says Horton. "It's of immense value in adding a visual dimension to the data gathering and analysis, and in facilitating research flight decision-making"

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