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Fog Forecasting With Drones

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By Dr. James Pinto, National Center for Atmospheric Research

Over the last ten years, weather-sensing drones have become a new proven technology for gathering weather data in the lower atmosphere. At the same time, weather-related commercial applications for drones have grown rapidly. Some commercial drones carry weather sensors to provide operators with situational awareness of environmental conditions. Weather-sensing drones can conduct observation flights multiple times an hour to collect profiles of temperature, moisture, and winds at much greater frequencies than traditional sensors. In addition, they’re environmentally friendly and more cost-effective.

A mix of targeted flights by weather-sensing drones and observations collected by commercial drone flights could provide unprecedented weather observation capabilities that would improve model predictions of fog, low ceilings, low-level wind shear, wind-shift boundaries, and convection initiation.

University of Kentucky’s Octocopter drone research prototype in flight during the FOGMAP study. It carries pressure, temperature, humidity sensors, and four ultrasonic anemometers for wind and turbulence measurements. Photo courtesy of the University of Kentucky

These weather hazards are disruptive to both traditional airport operations and low-altitude drone flights. According to Dr. James Pinto, Science Deputy of the Aviation Applications Program at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), drone observations can be a game-changer to improve aviation weather hazard guidance for low-altitude flight operations. He believes that as drone technology and capability continue to evolve, they will substantially improve their weather guidance as well as guidance for commercial and general aviation.

The FAA, NASA, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are currently sponsoring research to study the potential benefit of drone observations to improve the prediction of low-altitude flight hazards. In partnership with the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International (CVG) Airport, NOAA Wilmington Ohio Weather Forecast Office, NCAR, and the University of Kentucky, the FAA Aviation Weather Research Program (AWRP) is funding a study called FOGMAP — Frequent in-situ Observations above Ground for Modeling and Advanced Prediction of fog — to assess the benefit of drone observations in predicting the occurrence, timing, and severity of fog at major U.S. airports.

During the field phase of FOGMAP, which began in January 2022, drones will be deployed on days predicted to have localized airport-impacting fog. FOGMAP scientists from NCAR and the University of Kentucky will evaluate the potential of weather-sensing drones to improve fog predictions near airports that often experience local weather effects.

The FOGMAP study will assess the benefit of drone observations in predicting the occurrence, timing, and severity of fog at major U.S. airports.

The FOGMAP study will continue through May 2022. FAA project lead Jenny Colavito says that she is very interested to see if drones can significantly reduce model uncertainty in the prediction of fog. Simply improving the forecast of fog duration by an hour could result in major cost savings for commercial airlines and reduce delays for the flying public.

Opportunities for fog-forecasting drone flights are looking more promising as research and development efforts on sense and avoid technologies mature. As coverage of weather-sensing drones expands, this observational gap-filling technology will enable improved situational awareness and safety of all low-altitude flight operations and will provide a critical data service for supporting the Advanced Air Mobility of tomorrow.

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Dr. James Pinto is the Science Deputy of the Aviation Applications Program at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.Jenny Colavito, ceiling and visibility project lead with the FAA’s Weather Research Branch, and Rogan Flowers, a general engineer in the FAA’s Operational Programs Branch of the UAS Integration Office, contributed to this article.
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This article was originally published in the May/June 2022 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine. https://www.faa.gov/newsroom/faa-safety-briefing-magazine
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