This Flying HOLODEC Is a 3D Microscope for Clouds

Researchers have invented an airborne holographic 3D imaging device capable of capturing pictures of the microscopic droplets that clouds are made of.

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Oct 1 2015, 6:00pm

The HOLODEC, an airborne 3D holographic imaging device. Image: Raymond Shaw

Have you ever wondered what the insides of puffy clouds in the sky look like? Well you're in luck: Researchers have invented an airborne holographic 3D imaging device capable of capturing pictures of the microscopic droplets that clouds are made of.

"We developed a new method for looking at clouds. It's like an airborne microscope, and offers a way to zoom into the detailed small structure of what's happening inside of a cloud," Raymond Shaw, a professor of physics and Michigan Tech, told me.

Shaw said there are various cloud-inspecting technologies already out there, but his team's new invention really lets them look at the microstructure of clouds. They used a bunch of 2D images shot by their device into a detailed 3D cloud model back in the lab.

In a study published Thursday in the journal Science, Shaw and his team describe their new invention, HOLODEC, a holographic cloud detector and airborne laboratory that is attached to a plane wing and carried through clouds at high altitudes.

HOLODEC, said Shaw, is loosely Star Trek-inspired, and looks a bit like a crab's claw, with its cylindrical shape and pointy black tips. Every time the plane travels through a cloud, droplets are swept between the claws, and digital holography used to image them. This, said Shaw, allows them to see the microstructure of the cloud.

The data allows the researchers to make predictions on how much light clouds reflect back into space, how long they'll have to wait next for rain, or how big droplets of the future will be. According to Shaw, their findings could help influence models that help predict weather and climate change.

"Imagine sitting outside planet Earth and looking down at it. If you didn't have clouds, you would see a different picture of how the Earth looks like, you would change the temperature of the Earth as well, if you took away the clouds," said Shaw.

Shaw told me that there's a variety of instrumentation and widgets that people use for studying clouds, but Holodec has some special features which set it apart from counterparts.

"What HOLODEC does is provide a different perspective: It doesn't just count the cloud droplets one by one," he said. "What it does provide is a 3D snapshot of one small region in the cloud, and lets us count the hundreds or thousands of droplets that are in that volume."

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