The current weather tools and weather training for the UAS industry are woefully inadequate. That’s the assessment of Don Berchoff, a former U.S. Air Force meteorologist and the CEO of TruWeather. “Our Part 107 [UAS pilot] certification training has a weather section in it that is totally irrelevant,” Berchoff said. “We have a mismatch right now in standards and requirements,” he said, adding that current standards may allow UAS operators to “check the box” for regulatory compliance but fall short of operational needs.
Berchoff said that while “micro weather is really going to be a big issue in terms of enabling this industry to be successful and profitable,” a recent MIT Lincoln Laboratory study found that commercially available weather products do not completely meet the needs of the UAS industry. To be truly useful, weather data must “be used at the right time, at the right location, and be the right data for the right application." And that means “interpreting it properly for actual decision-making.”
Weather delays, in terms of lost productivity as opposed to natural disaster, already cost the U.S. economy $640 billion annually, Berchoff said, a number that will certainly grow as UAS become a bigger percentage of that economy. “When you start commoditizing this industry and start flying millions of drones a day, that [cost] starts adding up. We can get 40 percent of that back right now without even increasing the accuracy of weather [reporting],” he said. Berchoff pointed to an example of this from his 24-year tenure in the Air Force with manned aircraft: After a new weather risk-management framework was implemented, aerial tanker refueling mission weather delays dropped by nearly two-thirds in one year and saved the Air Force $200 million.
Simply applying weather data into Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) systems will help, and to that end TruWeather is working with Airbus, Thales, AirMap, OneSky, and others to incorporate better data sets and decision tools into those systems, ideally with weather data displayed as part of those companies’ system analytics to determine routes and airspace boundaries. “A single-stop shop, that is where we need to go,” Berchoff said. “It gets us not just the micro weather but the translation and integration into the analytic, and that’s how we get 40 percent more flight time.”
While decision tools can optimize current weather data, the data itself needs to be better. “There are too many gaps out there. Airports are well-instrumented, and that allows manned aviation to fly either in cylindrical areas around airports or fly above the weather,” he said, adding that UAV operations need denser and more local data. “I worry about things you cannot see: wind, turbulence, thermals, and icing. With UAVs 15 or 20 knots of wind can ruin your day. And once you start going into cities and flying around [building] corners, it’s bar the door. We need better capabilities in the cities.” He also pointed out that nearly 20 percent of the time large areas of the U.S. are experiencing temperature inversion, a circumstance that can easily send drones out of control at altitudes as low as 100 feet agl.
To Berchoff’s mind, better data means higher-resolution satellite imagery, down to 1,000 meters resolution, and gleaning local weather data from X-band radars, traffic camera analytics, cell towers, and the telemetry from the drones themselves. This data then needs to be crowd-sourced with commercial services that can then calibrate it and incorporate it into customer systems.
Having the right weather data and analytics gives operators the ability to better plan operations, especially for time-sensitive missions such as aerial application, Berchoff said, giving the example of one of his company’s customers, an apple orchard that needed to be pollinated by a quadcopter within a four-day window during a period of marginal weather. Using micro weather data and analytics, Berchoff’s firm was able to give the customer a solid three-hour window for a successful application. The effective application of micro-weather data will allow an individual commercial operator to save “tens of thousands of dollars,” Berchoff said.