Thunderstorms, wind shear, snowstorms, icing, fog, and other weather phenomena that create hazardous conditions cause more than half of all delays in the National Airspace System (NAS). The FAA is working closely with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to modernize how current weather information and forecasts are produced and disseminated so they are more useful to pilots, controllers, dispatchers, airlines, and other NAS operators. Research funded by the FAA's Aviation Weather Research Program is developing new ways to observe, analyze, and model the weather. Just as importantly, these aviation weather experts, engineers, and analysts are researching and engineering ways to mitigate the impact of adverse weather on air traffic nationwide and over the oceans.
The FAA's Aviation Weather Division has many research projects underway, and its findings are driving continual improvements in aviation weather tools, capabilities, and processes.
Recent achievements include:
- Weather Technology in the Cockpit (WTIC): The WTIC research team has completed more than 30 studies and experiments. The research aims to recommend the minimum necessary weather information and its presentation on cockpit or portable displays so pilots can consistently make effective and safe adverse-weather avoidance decisions. Based on these findings, researchers publish recommendations and guidance that educate cockpit-instrument designers on which display symbols and techniques best convey critical weather information.
- Weather Information Latency Demonstrator (WILD): Developed by the WTIC program, the WILD desktop simulator is used at aviation events to show general aviation pilots that there can be considerable delay in the weather information they see on their cockpit displays. For example, a depiction of storm cells could be up to 20 minutes old. Pilots using WILD can see how this lapse could trap them into thinking they are flying in the clear when instead they are about to encounter a storm. This latency affects pilots' ability to assess adverse weather conditions. Improved display designs and pilot education aim to enhance safety.
- Offshore Precipitation Capability (OPC): Developed by the FAA and MIT Lincoln Laboratory, OPC is running as a web-based prototype weather-analysis tool at the Houston, Miami, New York and Puerto Rico en route centers. It detects precipitation beyond the range of ground-based radar over the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and western Atlantic Ocean. OPC depicts precipitation and convection based on weather satellite imagery, data from a global network of lightning sensors, numerical weather prediction models, and ground-based radars in coastal areas. A computer technology called machine learning makes an educated guess regarding precipitation intensity and cloud top heights to indicate weather activity beyond the range of ground-based radar.
- OPC in Action: After Hurricane Maria destroyed the Next Generation Radar (NEXRAD) on Puerto Rico in late 2017, National Weather Service (NWS) forecasters began using OPC to track storms and precipitation over and near the island while waiting for a new NEXRAD to be installed in spring 2018. OPC also proved useful to controllers in watching Hurricane Harvey as it approached Texas in summer 2017, and to controllers watching Hurricane Irma as it tracked through the Caribbean and approached Florida shortly afterward.
- Temperature Tool: The FAA has developed a new technique that can fill in missing temperature information at airports in Alaska and the continental United States. These estimated temperatures are based on reports from other airports near facilities for which no measurement is available. The estimates are accurate enough that commercial aircraft operators can avoid canceling flights. The FAA is researching the use of this technique for estimating pressure, ceiling and visibility, and winds.
- Turbulence Forecasting: FAA-funded research has focused on the development of turbulence observation and forecasting capabilities to help improve safety and efficiency within the National Airspace System (NAS). Turbulence is the leading cause of injuries to passengers and flight crews for major and regional air carriers. In the area of observation, research has resulted in the development of an automated turbulence reporting capability aboard aircraft known as the Eddy Dissipation Rate (EDR) algorithm. This algorithm resides on aircraft and uses data from aircraft sensors to calculate a measure of the turbulent state of the atmosphere. These calculations are downlinked from the aircraft and disseminated to the airlines and the NWS for use in aviation weather forecasts.
- Collaborative Forecasting: Currently, there are nearly 1,000 U.S. commercial aircraft equipped with the EDR reporting capability. The FAA also is improving existing turbulence forecasting and "nowcasting" capabilities within the Graphical Turbulence Guidance product, which the NWS operates. The FAA is working with several airlines to evaluate these products within their operations, specifically on the flight deck. More timely and accurate turbulence information allows flight crews to make better strategic and tactical flight decisions, which is improving safety by keeping passengers and flight attendants seated when turbulence is expected and NAS capacity by decreasing the amount of altitude deviations.
Weather Tops 2016 Delays
Delays cost airlines $6.3 billion and passengers $11.8 billion in time lost in 2016. Weather is the biggest cause of delays at the 30 largest U.S. airports by type of delay. Source: FAA report "Air Traffic by the Numbers" October 2017.
FAA NextGen aviation weather researchers are exploring a wide range of improvements still in the proof-of-concept stage. These concepts may take years to mature but offer tremendous potential in the field of weather forecasting and reporting. Concurrently, the FAA and National Weather Service (NWS) are developing and fielding new aviation weather products, techniques, and capabilities that will enter service over the next few years.
FAA air traffic managers and airlines currently get weather information from a variety of systems, but that is about to change. The NWP will consolidate four legacy weather systems to deliver a single high-resolution picture. The new system will use data, processes, and algorithms from the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA, and others.
The fully automated NWP will offer a longer-range forecast than what is available for estimating potential impacts on the air traffic system. For example, effectively predicting air-traffic delays due to convective weather depends on accurately translating weather into predictions of pilot avoidance behaviors. The NWP will identify terminal and en route safety hazards, and provide translated weather information needed to predict route blockage and airspace capacity constraints up to 8 hours in advance.
NextGen translated weather information is based on the NASA-developed Convective Weather Avoidance Model — a first-of-its-kind model that estimates the probability that a pilot will change his or her route to avoid convective weather. Convective weather avoidance polygons outline the area where pilots are unlikely to fly as they avoid hazardous weather. These polygons, which show weather-avoidance areas at various altitudes and times, update every 5 minutes, and are available at five altitudes at 48 different times over an 8-hour period.
The NWP will use radar and satellite data, plus the output from forecast models, to create new products for the FAA and aircraft operators. The information will be presented on a new aviation weather display in en route and terminal air traffic control facilities. This display will give controllers and air traffic managers the big picture on how weather is likely to impact flight operations so they can make well-informed decisions. Air traffic managers will use the NWP to make better tactical and strategic use of airspace to reduce weather-related delays, helping aircraft arrive at their destinations on time.
NWS meteorologists in Puerto Rico track stormy weather in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017 using the FAA Offshore Precipitation Capability. Photo courtesy of National Weather Service
CSS-Wx is an FAA information service aimed at sharing legacy and new aviation-weather products with aviation specialists in and outside the FAA who are tasked with keeping aircraft moving safely and on time. This service will be the single FAA provider of weather data, products, and imagery within the NAS. CSS-Wx will achieve widespread sharing of weather information using the FAA's System Wide Information Management (SWIM) for information exchange. SWIM enables users to access aeronautical, flight, and weather data produced by the FAA via a secure telecommunications network.
Much of the weather information will be integrated into FAA air traffic decision support systems to assist staff managing daily flight operations. Controllers will benefit from this weather information during severe weather events when pilots need timely guidance to fly safely. Weather information will be published by CSS-Wx in internationally recognized standard formats to simplify data exchange while increasing access to aviation weather data for a wide-ranging audience. Pilots, dispatchers, controllers, and air traffic managers will view identical weather conditions and forecasts when they collaborate on routing each flight.
In other research efforts:
- Crowdsourcing: Researchers are examining if crowdsourcing can be used to quantify visibility observed by weather video cameras installed throughout Alaska. Crowdsourcing involves a number of "workers" (people or automation) looking at live-video images to select a number that represents visibility, based on factors such as being able to see a mountain peak known to be a specific distance away from the camera. Pilots could benefit from having a number that corresponds to the visibility rather than having to view the video feed and guess the visibility. If the research shows crowdsourcing is useful, the visibility numbers produced may be shared with pilots preparing to fly or in flight.
- Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS): The FAA is exploring if UAS could report surface weather conditions at airports and what weather standards should be implemented for UAS.
- Weather Sensor: A team at the FAA's William J. Hughes Technical Center performed a multi-year effort evaluating industry's ability to produce a weather sensor capable of detecting ice pellets and drizzle. The effort resulted in a requirements specification for a new weather sensor that could be deployed at airports. The new sensor will benefit the aviation deicing and anti-icing community by providing critical data for determining how much time a pilot has before the deicing fluid loses its effectiveness and the aircraft has to be treated again before takeoff.
A team of airline operators and FAA researchers is determining the feasibility of uplinking convective-weather information to the cockpits of aircraft flying over oceans and in remote regions. This requires more accurate information on times and locations where thunderstorms are occurring than is available worldwide. The idea is to provide graphics showing the location of hazardous weather to airline operations centers and to airline crews in flight. The FAA is developing a turbulence "nowcast" capability that uses forecast models and turbulence observations, such as pilot reports and radar-based inferences, to produce a snapshot of turbulence conditions for the following hour. It is updated every 15 minutes. This capability is under evaluation at the NWS Aviation Weather Center and at a commercial U.S. carrier for possible implementation in the continental United States in the next few years.