ATC Centers Get New Weather Radars

 - January 4, 2008, 6:01 AM

Air traffic controllers at the FAA’s 20 contiguous en route centers are now able to see more accurate, timely weather information on the same display that shows aircraft position data, which the agency claims will reduce the potential for weather-related accidents and lessen the effect of weather on airspace efficiency.

The weather and radar processor (WARP) depicts precipitation in three different blocks of altitude on color monitors, allowing controllers to concentrate on the weather affecting a particular airspace sector and see a more timely view of local precipitation. By seeing both the aircraft and the storm, where the aircraft is going and when and where it will return to its original path, the controller is able to move other aircraft around more effectively.

Bill Peacock, FAA manager of air traffic services, explained that, in the past, long-range radar that was designed to see airplanes did not always show weather in a useful way. Because of that inability, the controller would sometimes vector an airplane to an area that did not appear to have weather, only to have the pilot come back and report weather ahead.

At that point the controller had to rely on the pilot to deviate around the weather and tell ATC how far and how long the deviation would last. That created a lot of chatter on the frequency and reduced the number of airplanes a controller could manage at one time.

Peacock said that with WARP controllers have three intensity levels of weather on the scope. They can see how severe it is and pass that on to the flight crew. “It gives us basically the same presentation as what the pilot with weather radar on the airplane is seeing,” he said. “For the pilot without weather radar, it enhances the safety for them and the efficiency of the system.”

WARP was developed jointly by the FAA, National Air Traffic Controllers Association, National Weather Service (NWS) and Defense Department. According to Steve Pelissier, who was the Natca representative on the WARP project, the picture that controllers see is similar to the Nexrad images seen on the Weather Channel.

Unlike the old weather radar, which he described as “very unreliable,” WARP provides weather cell definition because it was originally developed by the NWS for forecasting. The Nexrad display will allow controllers to operate airspace sectors “much more efficiently,” he added.

WARP has been installed in all 20 of the ATC en route centers in the continental U.S. The Alaska center is expected to go online next month, followed by facilities in Hawaii and Puerto Rico later this year.   

The color-coded weather information is shown as background graphics to the aircraft data on the display. Pelissier said WARP shows moderate, heavy and severe precipitation intensities, broken into altitude levels. A composite covers all altitudes, then it goes from surface to FL240, FL240 to FL330 and then FL330 and above. “I have had more than one journeyman controller come and tell me this is one of the best improvements they’ve seen in their entire career,” he concluded.