Alec from 3D Printing Industry

While 3D printing technology has already proven to be capable of improving the quality of life in developing countries – thanks programs such as the Wakati One solar-powered tent – but now a new American initiative is proving that 3D printers can actually save those lives as well. For the United States Agency for International Development (or USAID) is, together with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a number of international partners, using 3D printing technology to build weather stations that can predict flash floods.

Now flash floods can be deadly in any case, but developed countries that could be facing these floods typically implement weather stations in at-risk areas that will alert its citizens in times of trouble. Countries in the third world cannot afford these luxuries – that quickly cost tens of thousands of dollars and need to be replaced regularly – resulting in the deaths of 22,000 in 2013 alone, affecting the lives of 97 million people and causing $118 billion in damages. Fortunately this new initiative by the USAID is 3D printing weather forecasting stations for just $200 or so.

The initiative to use low cost 3D printing manufacturing has been spearheaded by Kelly Sponberg, and is being realized with the help of engineers from the Joint Office for Science Support (supported by the National Science Foundation). As he told reporters, weather is very accessible in the west. ‘You can turn on the news, look online, or use an app on your phone. It’s easy to take for granted the ability to check the weather. But in many developing countries, weather forecasting has been limited because of the high cost of weather systems. I wanted to change that by finding an affordable way for countries to predict and prepare for weather.’

Martin Steinson, a mechanical engineer has developed and 3D printed the plastic components for these low-cost weather stations. Thanks to a series of sensors, this low-budget station collects data from factors such as temperature, pressure, humidity, rainfall and wind. All that data is stored in a Raspberry Pi and sent to weather experts who can make predictions as accurately as possible.

Parts for a test station being printed.

It is, in short, a 3D printing project that we so many of, but USAID engineers argue that this is all that it takes to save lifes. ‘Not only can they provide countries with the ability to more accurately monitor for weather-related disasters, the data they produce can also help reduce the economic impact of disasters,’ Sezin Tokar from USAID argues. If successful, larger budgets for stronger and more efficient sensors will hopefully become available, which could even take soil samples to optimize farming yields.

This remarkably simple, but potentially life-saving project is set to be showcased at the 3rd UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction this week, which is held in Sendai, Japan. Once it meets international standards for safety, a series of pilot tests can be launched in one or two developing countries. As it stands, Zambia might be the first country to benefit from these low budget 3D printed weather stations. Its National Weather Service is set to receive laptops, 3D printers and all other necessary components this summer.