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Storm chasing technology gaining favor with viewers

These days, local news stations are doing anything they can to attract viewers and improve ratings. Most recently, the severe weather in different parts of the country has helped keep viewers glued to their TVs, so broadcasters are providing live coverage like never before. For local stations, it has meant getting as close to the “action” as possible with “mobile weather lab” vehicles. And there’s an added bonus; these converted SUVs — which make use of the latest KA/KU satellite and cellular transmission technology — are a great promotional tool and as such are being featured prominently on-air during a storm.

These are not your soccer-mom-type vehicles. They typically include limited high-definition production capabilities as well as National Weather Service radar images, wireless Internet access, GPS navigation and Skype capability. LED crawls on the top of the SUV can display up to the minute the weather (and station) information.

“There’s no doubt that the emergence of the mobile weather lab is directly related to the severe weather we have seen over the past winter and station’s desire to bring the viewer closer to the weather event,” said John Payne, chief technology officer and vice president of engineering at Integrated Microwave Technologies (IMT), a company based in Hackettstown, NJ, that builds such weather vans. In the past 18 months, IMT has delivered more than a dozen such vehicles for major market stations across the country, including several for the CBS network in New York (WCBS), Philadelphia (KYW) and San Francisco (KPIX).

A weather station on wheels

Paul Deanno, chief meteorologist at KPIX, wrote a blog when their van was earlier this year beaming at the possibilities.

“Ask anyone, and they’ll tell you our Bay Area climate is as diverse as the people who call the Bay Area home,” he wrote. “So to really understand the weather, you need to hit the road and experience it. It is the Bay Area’s first state-of-the-art weather station on wheels.”

The KPIX 5 Mobile Weather Lab, built by IMT, boasts two dashboard mounted cameras with satellite capability and 3G/4G wireless connectivity that allow KPIX 5 meteorologists to go live from location even when in motion.

“That’s key because we will show the conditions changing by the minute as we approach any severe weather,” Deanno wrote.

The audio and video production equipment in the weather vans configured by IMT — made up of retrofitted Audi Quattros, Chevy Suburbans, Toyota Highlanders and Buick Enclaves — are installed at IMT’s facility in its Carlyle, PA, where the company’s engineers outfit standard SUVs, large and small, with COFDM wireless microwave transmitters, dashboard-mounted HD cameras, rooftop gyro-stabilized antennas, camera-mounted microwave and cellular transmitters, and a wireless router and modem. The whole process takes about 90 days to complete.

A wireless camera operator, using an IMT MicroLight transmitter, feeds video back into the on-board weather lab. This allows the reporter to switch between live video and weather images. This video can also be fed over KA band satellite links if the equipment is available.

Typically, this video equipment is in addition to an on-board weather station (with instruments for temperature, wind speed, barometric pressures, etc.), and an Apple TV box and iPad for sharing radar data that can be show on a plasma screen mounted in the rear of the vehicle — which the reporter can point to while on-air to display weather graphics in lieu of a green screen studio.

These vehicles are usually smaller than a typical ENG van, where editing and other activities occur on board, so more internal space is required. The idea is that a single person can set everything up and begin broadcasting immediately.

An extension of the promo department

E-N-G Mobile Systems is another veteran company that builds newsgathering vans and retrofitted SUVs. It recently finished a weather van for KOVR-TV, the CBS affiliate in Sacramento, CA. The state-of-the-art technology inside the Toyota Sequoia includes a full-scale weather station and a rooftop mounted LED crawl that displays breaking weather information in real time, and a new Xtender antenna from LiveU helps improves bonded cellular reception. (KOVR’s new weather truck will be on display at the NAB Outdoor/mobile area; booth #OE820.)

“Weather vans are an extension of a station’s promo department and really add to the value of a newscast,” said Rex Reed, Director, Business and Product Development at E-N-G Mobile Systems, in West Grove, PA. “I think stations are being very competitive and adding new technology to cover the news when it makes sense. That being said, if you want high-quality images on-air, there will always be a need for a satellite truck on-site to support these weather vans (and cellular transmission technology). They can't do it all.”

Live coverage on the go

Of course, no network or channel is perhaps better versed in weather coverage than The Weather Channel. Over the past five seasons, host Mike Bettes and the “Tornado Hunt team” has traveled more than 100,000mi in search of tornadoes and other extreme weather events. The primary chase vehicle — the "Bettes Mobile” — is equipped with multiple interior/exterior live cameras, including a 360-degree roof cam. Installed by NBC News Field Operations, the team uses a gyro-stabilized satellite antenna to broadcast live while the vehicles are in motion. The Tornado Hunt convoy is currently in Dallas and positioned in the event of an early tornado season outbreak. Tornado Hunt 2013 “officially” launches April 29 and ends May 11.

“The big challenge was designing the equipment to allow us to broadcast from virtually anywhere,” said Mike Jenkins, senior producer of special events at The Weather Channel. A crew of seven to nine people — three to four Weather Channel staff and two to three NBC News field operations engineers — travels with three vehicles that operate as a convoy. 

Before Tornado Hunt begins, the Weather Channel rents two GMC Yukon SUVs for the season, which are sent to the NBC field operations facility in Long Island, City, NY. to be outfitted with the necessary equipment. A third satellite KU uplink truck also goes along to send live signals back to The Weather Channel headquarters in Dallas, TX.

Jenkins said the gyro-stabilized antenna on the roof is perhaps their most useful tool because, “We broadcast while moving much more than we do sitting still. The gyro antenna does a great job, even when traveling at 70mph. However, under bridges and trees are sometimes problematic for getting the signal out. That’s why the plains are the ideal topology for us.”

He added that high precipitation areas or “cells” are the worst, in terms of sending out a “clean” live signal.

“Our goal is always to work from the south side of an event, since we have to hit a satellite orbiting over the south," Jenkins said. "Our dream shot is a nice backlit storm. It doesn't always work out that well, but we try. It’s weather, after all, so it’s highly unpredictable. That’s why it’s key that we can move and broadcast at the same time.”