Enhancing the Weather-Sensitivity of Drone As First Responder Programs

Drone as First Responder (DFR) programs are becoming increasingly popular with the nation’s public safety agencies, especially police departments seeking to respond rapidly to 911 calls while reducing their operational costs and keeping their field officers safe from harm.

But the need to scale these same operations – in part, to make them even more economically feasible, but also more versatile and responsive to diverse contingencies – has raised a fresh issue:  the threat to drone flying posed by adverse weather conditions.

Drones are still highly vulnerable to wind, rain and temperature changes, and can be diverted from their mission or simply grounded before they even launch.  What can be done?

Last week, at the annual Drone Responders National UAS Conference, a panel of experts discussed the options.

The main problem, panelists noted, is that most current weather reporting fails to capture the local “micro-conditions” that can affect drone flying – including differences in terrain, physical infrastructure (e.g. tall buildings), bodies of water, forests and open fields.  These micro-conditions can cause variations in temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, cloud cover and precipitation, introducing variables that can make or break successful drone flying missions.

Typically, aviators of all kinds rely upon government-approved sources of weather data from rigorously certified and validated instruments – usually stationed at airports.  But these data systems fail to take into account altitude conditions below 5,000 feet – which is far too high to assess drone-level weather – and also neglect highly variable site-specific elements that can affect the quality of drone flying.

The problems are challenging enough in the case of a single drone with a designated point-to-point flight path, but can become even more complicated when multiple drones are being piloted as a fleet from potentially different launch points and along different flight paths.

Hence there’s a need for new weather monitoring methods – and new certified standards for their use.

Low-cost supplementary sensors are already being deployed to conduct more localized comprehensive area monitoring of conditions such as wind speed, cloud height and visibility, the panel noted, but there’s a need for a more dedicated policy and regulatory focus with more technology innovation focused on the drone operational environment is still needed.

In fact, testing of various experimental sensor systems – with proposals for new certification standards – is already underway.  One project that utilizes new standards is the NASA-funded Urban Weather Sensing Infrastructure Testbed (UWSIT) initiative in Hampton, Virginia, which aims to provide detailed low-altitude weather data and forecast services.  UWSIT uses ground-based weather sensor systems and two cutting-edge doppler LiDARs that can be accessed by drone operators in emerging DFR systems.

Another project is the Flight Information Exchange, or FIX, which combines up to a dozen low-altitude surveillance and weather sensors into a public data network that can be freely shared across multiple agencies, giving DFR operators better real-time data on shifting weather conditions prior to launching their drones.

Panel experts are convinced that harnessing and sharing the data from advanced low-level weather sensors can enhance situational awareness for drone operators beyond conventional weather reporting, making DFR systems better able to anticipate shifting weather conditions — for example, adverse wind conditions or sudden unexpected fog or precipitation – while still responding rapidly and safely to emergencies as they arise.

“We all need to think about weather in a new way to make DFR scalable,” David Berchoff  of TruWeather Solutions, commented during the discussion  “Great sensor technology is out there – something between an ASOS and a windsock. We [just have] to get the rules changed,” he said.

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