Omnipresence is a neat trick if you can pull it off. Officially defined as the state of being widespread or constantly encountered, it basically means being everywhere at the same time. Think how handy that would be to pilots! Sadly, such abilities have always been the province of more divine beings. This inherent limitation has led to a dangerous trend — the “let’s just take a look” flight.
We’ve all done it. “It doesn’t look that bad here, I’ll just turn around if it gets worse.” At best, this approach is expensive and time-consuming. At worst, it is dangerous and potentially deadly. We’ve all been burned by a bad forecast or a lack of real-time data, not just at the destination but at points along the way. The good news is that modern technology in the form of carefully placed weather cameras brings the benefits of omnipresence to everyone.
What is a Weather Camera?
The FAA’s weather camera program started about two decades ago in Alaska as a way to give pilots “eyes on” meteorological information in areas too remote for more traditional observation. The Alaska Weather Camera (WCAM) program goal was to stop the “go-out-and-take-a-look” flights by placing cameras in mountain passes, and remote or unattended airports, so pilots could “see” the weather conditions before takeoff.
Given the widespread availability of low-cost but high-quality cameras nowadays, this description skims over the very real challenges of making the program work as intended. The logistics of installing, powering and maintaining these cameras, especially in an area as unforgiving as Alaska, are just the beginning. There is also the need to get images back to a central server in a timely manner and at a reasonable cost. Fortunately, some of these challenges diminished as technology improved and cameras became more resilient.
You are Here
The current WCAM program has 230 Alaska camera sites and 178 sites hosted by NAV Canada, Canada’s civil air navigation services provider. Each site offers between two and four camera views that show current conditions, a comparative Clear-Day image and a 6-hour loop of previous images to show trends. These cameras are consolidated and available to view at avcams.faa.gov.
Modern technology in the form of carefully-placed weather cameras brings the benefits of omnipresence to everyone.
A 2012 FAA study concluded that the WCAM program had coincided with and contributed to a 53 percent decrease in the weather-related aviation accident rate in Alaska. No surprise there; omnipresence that allows pilots to “see” the actual weather and how it is trending at critical points on a flight path is powerful. Given this success, you may be wondering why these cameras aren’t being used outside of Alaska. There’s a plan for that.
With encouragement from a 2013 National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommendation, there are plans to expand the WCAM program beyond Alaska. First up: Hawaii. While the Hawaiian climate is very different from Alaska, the Aloha State experiences the same rapidly changing weather that makes weather cameras so useful. The FAA has identified 23 critical sites and has devised technical solutions for those installations. The agency has also gathered some of the necessary funding to begin the rollout of Hawaii weather cameras and expects to complete the process over the next two years.
Wondering about the lower 48 states? The FAA is working with organizations like state-level departments of transportation and municipal governments to integrate the images from their existing camera systems. For example, the agency has recently signed a Cost Reimbursable Agreement with the Colorado state Division of Aeronautics to transfer its technical solutions, and to assist them with the installation of robust and capable camera facilities at 13 of their mountain-top Automated Weather Observing System (AWOS) facilities. Upon completion, the FAA wishes to integrate those images into its weather camera website for all aviators to use as a part of their flight and operational decision making. The FAA hopes this partnership will provide a template for other state Departments of Transportation (DOTs) and municipalities to follow in the future.
The FAA also hopes to establish more agency-owned systems. The agency has identified 170 possible weather camera sites in the continental United States, typically in mountain passes with known controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) hazards. However, the partnership avenue allows the WCAM program to grow faster than FAA resources alone would permit. The hope is that the minimal technical requirements for weather camera equipment will allow for a plethora of non-FAA cameras to be added to the system. If you know a location that might benefit from a weather camera, talk to your state DOT representatives to see if they might be interested in supporting or partnering with the FAA.
The Road Ahead
Going forward, several innovations hold promise for the WCAM program. First are a host of improvements to the WCAM website. You can already see some of these improvements in the new site: avcamsplus.faa.gov. It adds mobile device support, more map layers, graphical icons for METARs/TAFs/PIREPs, airport information documents and a search function. More functions are on the horizon. These include route-based data acquisition, more weather data sets, the ability to develop and save favorites and flight routes, and a graphical user interface (GUI) for dispatchers and flight followers.
There are also a number of hardware improvements. New camera technology allows for higher resolution images with 360 degree views, which allows for larger individual images and enables users to pan, tilt, and zoom within the image. The new camera systems under consideration will have higher resolutions and will possess night vision (starlight) capability.
In another potential advance, the FAA is working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on an algorithm to use edge detection to determine visibility from the camera images. The algorithm, Visibility Estimation through Image Analytics (VEIA), works by learning landmarks with known distances and comparing current images to ideal ones. In that way, it estimates visibility the same way humans do. Validating VEIA results against Automated Surface Observing Systems (ASOS) readings found VEIA to be more than 90 percent accurate in detecting low visibility.
Finally, the FAA is considering new weather observing systems to fill gaps in current airport METAR coverage. New systems would have lower installation and operation costs while adding weather cameras. Combining low cost weather observation with cameras not only helps the WCAM program, but also supports the National Weather Service with general forecasts.
New camera technology would also be a valuable weather tool for unmanned aircraft system (UAS) operations in the National Airspace System. UAS, widely known as drones, seldom operate from airports, and are often in remote areas without traditional weather reporting systems. Additionally, boundary layer forecasts are not provided by the National Weather Service, further supporting the benefits of weather cameras.
Thanks to the weather camera program, omnipresence is within reach.
James Williams is FAA Safety Briefing’s associate editor and photo editor. He is also a pilot and ground instructor.