New technology to enhance FAA weather camera program
By Ed Brotak | March 17, 2023
Estimated reading time 6 minutes, 51 seconds.
New technology developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory aims to provide pilots with visibility estimates to enhance their understanding of current weather conditions at weather camera sites.
The Visibility Estimation through Image Analytics (VEIA) algorithm uses existing Federal Aviation Administration weather camera infrastructure to provide the estimates based on an automated comparison of current conditions to clear day images.
Sponsored by the FAA Office of NextGen’s Aviation Weather Division, the VEIA aims to provide pilots with an easy-to-use online planning tool that incorporates real-time visual information to mitigate the effects of weather.
“The display the [FAA’s] weather camera program created for VEIA makes the data very easy to read and interpret,” said Jenny Colavito, the lead FAA engineer on the project. “The camera images are always displayed, too, so any user can give VEIA data a sanity check.”
The system has been extensively tested, and the FAA hopes to have it fully operational by the fall of this year.
The regulator initiated its weather camera program in Alaska in 1999. The idea was to install TV cameras with transmission abilities at sites in remote locations, allowing pilots to see for themselves near-current weather conditions.
Often, the destination has limited or non-existent weather information available to pilots, making preflight “go/no-go” decisions particularly difficult.
“One of the challenges in point-to-point low altitude operations where you cannot operate over top of the weather, are weather conditions between the approved weather sources pilots use for flight planning decisions,” said Thomas Judge, executive director, LifeFlight of Maine/The LifeFlight Foundation.
This is certainly true in Alaska, with vast distances to traverse and where smaller aircraft are often the primary way of moving people and supplies.
The FAA’s weather program began with the installation of three camera sites in Alaska in the first year. Today, 230 FAA camera sites are operated in the state. According to the FAA, the weather camera service resulted in an 85 percent reduction in weather-related accidents and a 69 percent reduction in weather-related flight interruptions between 2007 and 2014.
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The success in Alaska led the FAA to expand the weather camera program to Hawaii. The state’s mountainous terrain, with often rapidly-changing weather conditions and limited weather observations, is routinely traversed by low-flying planes and helicopters. Eleven FAA camera sites are currently in operation there.
As the demand for weather cameras grew, but with limited resources to hand, the FAA turned to third parties for help. The plan was for non-federal agencies to fund the camera sites, while access to them would be available through the federal website. State agencies, such as Departments of Transportation, have stepped up, and non-FAA-owned weather cameras sites are found in Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, and Montana.
The helicopter air ambulance (HAA) sector obviously benefits from weather camera information (if available) from pickup locations such as accident sites. But it was also noted that such facilities at hospital helipads would also be hugely beneficial, especially if weather instrumentation was limited or missing.
“Increasing the density of the weather grid is critical to the safety of helicopter air ambulances,” said Judge. “LifeFlight of Maine’s weather camera project is the next layer of improving the density of the weather sources for pilot planning, with an initial 35 grant-funded weather camera locations, of which 20 are currently installed. On multiple occasions, access to the weather cameras has allowed pilots to make a ‘go’ decision to safely reach and transport a critical patient.”
Today, the FAA weather camera program owns and maintains the camera systems in Alaska and Hawaii. Its website also hosts camera images from 280 non-FAA-owned weather cameras sites in Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Utah, and across Canada (over 200 courtesy of NAV Canada).
Each weather camera site typically offers views in the four cardinal directions (north, south, east and west), with the images refreshed every 10 minutes. For reference, a view of the site on a clear day is shown. A time lapse loop covering the previous six hours may also be included. In addition, the weather camera program site offers additional information valuable for flight operations, a complete list of camera sites, and instructions and tutorials on how to use the site.
“I believe that the advancement of weather camera technology, especially as it applies to the low altitude aviation environment, is capable of bridging a glaring safety gap in weather data reporting and weather data analysis that exists in the low altitude aviation world of today,” said Rex J Alexander, president and executive director of Five-Alpha LLC.
“This is especially true for those operations conducted at locations where access to traditional AWOS and ASOS information, such as heliports, vertiports and emergency accident scenes is non-existent,” he continued. “The implications of bridging this gap will not only be significant for the traditional helicopter market but will have a major and positive impact on the eVTOL, AAM, Drone, and UAS industries of tomorrow.”
The FAA said it is evaluating installing additional weather cameras in Alaska and the Continental US later this year.