Weather Reports from the Sky

Commercial airlines have excellent weather information. Why don't private pilots?

Weather Reports from the Sky | Aerogram Magazine | Purdue University School of Aeronautics and Astronautics

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Weather Reports from the Sky

There’s a weather data problem in general aviation, and it’s costing some private pilots their lives. Purdue IE and AAE professor Barrett Caldwell says the weather and navigation technologies themselves have advanced significantly — but they don’t align with pilots’ expectations. He came across this while working on a research project for the FAA Weather Technology in the Cockpit program office.

“People often believe the data you see on a weather radar represents right now. But it can be delayed by 15 minutes or more. The life of a thunderstorm cell might be 20 minutes, so it might not appear on weather radar until it’s over,” he says.

He identified several sentinel incidents where a lag in weather information factored into an accident, and likely to a pilot’s or passenger’s death. That motivated him to dig further.

His research group designed multiple projects to see how well people in the general aviation community understand that data lag. They put together a demonstration and brought it to several major aviation gatherings, like the EAA Airventure show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and Sun ‘n’ Fun in Lakeland, Florida, to see what decisions pilots make in certain flying situations.

“We saw pilots get trapped because of uncertainty, latency, and poor awareness of weather dynamics,” he says.

Office Hours with Barrett Caldwell

Hear the Philadelphia-born professor’s subtle sense of humor and learn why he keeps little bear figurines around his office. Watch "Office Hours with Barret Caldwell."

Part of the problem is a lack of pilot reports (PIREPs) in general aviation. Commercial airlines have a great reporting record, Caldwell says. “When you hear the pilot on an airliner say, ‘We’ve got reports that it’s going to be bumpy,’ that’s often coming from a PIREP, which might even be automated from other commercial aircraft. But we don’t have that for general aviation.”

PIREPs are harder to do for pilots in smaller aircraft, especially in single-seaters with no one to help with the controls. But those smaller aircraft are also more susceptible to winds and weather.

As lead of the Enhanced Hands-Minimized Interfaces project, Caldwell’s team has been working on a system can translate speech into properly coded PIREPs. This project is part of the FAA’s PEGASAS, the Partnership to Enhance General Aviation Safety, Accessibility and Sustainability —a multi-institution partnership led by Purdue.

One challenge with training an AI language model is having enough training data, something Purdue is working with Florida Tech to collect. That voice recognition system will also need to deal with a lot of background noise, plus the usual challenges of natural language processing. Initial tests have been positive, and they’re moving forward with additional funding.

PEGASAS has been awarded $40.4 million in a combination of FAA funds and matching support for 34 projects since its founding in 2012. Purdue has participated in 22 of those projects, totaling $13.7 million.

“I don’t believe in finding an ‘ideal box’ to fix the problem. There are apps all over that give you weather info,” Caldwell says. “A lot of pilots already have a comms system like Garmin, Flight Aware or something else in the cockpit. It would be great if those systems could have a button to file a PIREP.”

Caldwell hopes, if he can make the reporting process easier, pilots can be better prepared before every takeoff — even if it’s just for a quick hop to the nearest FBO diner.

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