Smart Umbrellas Study Rainfall

Revolutionize the way we study precipitation

When we think of our cellphone data as coveted information, the connotation is usually negative: Government agencies are spying on us; social media sites are selling our predilections to advertisers; spurned lovers are tracking our movements and plotting revenge.

But can data from your phone be put to more benevolent use? Dr. Rolf Huf, from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, believes it can. This week, Huf is presenting his "smart brolly" in Vienna at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly. This prototype umbrella has a built-in sensor that registers rainfall by measuring vibrations on the canvas. The data is then sent via Bluetooth to an app on the umbrella holder's smartphone, which in turn uploads information into, ahem, the cloud.

Huf's ambition is to turn people into mobile weather stations, a crowdsourcing initiative meant to compensate for the decreasing number of costly (and stationary) rain gauges.

As Huf told BBC News, "We have radar and satellites, but we're not measuring rain on the ground as we used to; it's expensive to maintain the gauges. Therefore, agencies are reducing the number, and that's a problem for people who do operational water management or do research into hydrology because they don't have the access to the data they used to."

Although Huf's project is a long way from being realized, its potential benefits justify continued research. With hundreds, if not thousands, of mobile rain gauges to work with, those who specialize in urban hydrology could do a better job of predicting flooding in cities and receive hyperlocal updates on rain patterns.