New technology to improve FAA’s weather camera program

from Ed Brotak | March 17, 2023

Estimated reading time 6 minutes, 51 seconds.

The new technology, developed by MIT Lincoln Laboratory, aims to provide pilots with visibility forecasts to improve their understanding of current weather conditions at weather camera sites.

The Visibility Assessment Image Analysis Algorithm (VEIA) uses the FAA’s existing weather camera infrastructure to provide the forecasts based on an automated comparison of current conditions with images on clear days.

Sponsored by the FAA Office of NextGen Weather, VEIA aims to provide pilots with an easy-to-use online planning tool that includes real-time visual information to mitigate the effects of weather.

“The display [FAA’s] The weather camera program built for VEIA makes the data very easy to read and interpret,” said Jenny Colavito, the FAA’s lead engineer on the project. “Camera images are also always displayed, so any user can give the VEIA data a reliability check.”

The system has been tested extensively, 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 broadcast-capable television cameras in remote locations, allowing pilots to see near-current weather conditions for themselves.

Often, the destination has limited or non-existent meteorological information available to pilots, making pre-flight go/no-go decisions particularly difficult.

“One of the challenges in low-altitude point-to-point operations where you can’t work above the weather is weather conditions between the approved weather sources that pilots use for flight planning decisions,” said Thomas Judge, executive director, LifeFlight of Maine / LifeFlight Foundation.

This is certainly true in Alaska, with vast distances to cover and where smaller aircraft are often the primary means of moving people and supplies.

The FAA’s weather program began with the installation of three cameras in Alaska in the first year. Today, there are 230 FAA cameras operating in the state. According to the FAA, the weather camera service led to an 85 percent reduction in weather-related accidents and a 69 percent reduction in weather-related flight disruptions between 2007 and 2014.

The success in Alaska prompted the FAA to expand the weather camera program in Hawaii. The state’s mountainous terrain, with frequently changing weather conditions and limited weather observations, is routinely crossed by low-flying aircraft and helicopters. There are currently eleven FAA cameras operating there.

With demand for weather cameras growing but with limited resources, 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 the Department of Transportation have stepped up, and non-FAA-owned weather camera sites are located in Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi and Montana.

The Helicopter Air Ambulance (HAA) sector obviously benefits from weather camera information (if available) from pick-up locations such as accident sites. But it was also noted that similar facilities at hospital helipads would also be of great benefit, especially if weather instruments are limited or absent.

“Increasing weather grid density is critical to the safety of helicopter air ambulances,” Judge said. “Maine’s LifeFlight Weather Camera Project is the next layer to improve weather source density for pilot planning, with an initial 35 grant-funded weather camera sites, of which 20 are currently installed. In many cases, access to weather cameras has allowed pilots to make a ‘go’ decision to safely reach and transport a critically ill 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 weather camera 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 images refreshed every 10 minutes. A view of the site on a clear day is shown for reference. A time-lapse loop covering the previous six hours may also be included. In addition, the Weather Camera Program site offers additional information valuable to flight operations, a complete list of camera sites, and instructions and tutorials on how to use the site.

“I believe that advances in weather camera technology, particularly as it relates to the low-altitude aviation environment, are able to bridge the obvious safety gap in weather data reporting and weather data analysis that exists in today’s low-altitude world.” altitude,” said Rex Jay Alexander, president and CEO of Five-Alpha LLC.

“This is particularly true for those operations conducted in locations where traditional AWOS and ASOS information is not accessible, such as helicopters, heliports and emergency incident scenes,” he continued. “The implications of bridging this gap will not only be significant for the traditional helicopter market, but will have a large 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 U.S. later this year.

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