May 12, 20183 min read

Why Drones Can’t Use Regular Weather Forecasts

The FAA moves towards more drone regulation in the U.S but most drones can't fly in bad weather

The FAA this week announced ten locations across the United States that will launch drone test flights in a public-private partnership program. The Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program will look for ways to regulate “more complex low-altitude operations,” to make drones safer while laying the foundation for this emerging technology to make a major economic impact. What’s complex about low altitudes is the lack of weather information at 0-1000 meters. In fact, this is the central complicating factor for drone missions. No matter where they fly, UAVs have limited access to weather information related to visibility and winds, not to mention, precipitation. Since the ten IPP sites are distributed across the nation from Alaska to Ft. Myers, the UAS being tested in each location will go up against their own microclimates. These sites are flagged below on the HyperCast dashboard – each microclimate comes with its own typical weather risks.

The IPP UAVs in the Midwest and the Southeast (NC through FL) will have to work around severe thunderstorms, heavy rainfall, and hail. In places like Alaska and the northern Sierra Nevada area, it’s no surprise that snowfall will affect missions. Meanwhile, flights in the Northern Midwest will face blowing/drifting snow in winter.  Since moisture can cause electrical failure in drones, operators using traditional weather forecasts will likely cancel missions because it’s too risky to send a drone out without knowing when precipitation will start and stop.

Types of weather elements that affect UAS operations- source: MIT Lincoln Lab

Further down the west coast, the Santa Ana winds in the south plus wildfire smoke in the summers will likely cause visibility issues.  Wind is a well known hazard because drones expend more electrical power while they fly into headwinds and can overheat – shortening their lifespan. Since many operators fly their drone within visual line-of-sight, visibility is of major importance. 

The IPP will lay the foundation for mainstream acceptance of drones in everything from on-demand delivery to emergency management. The trouble for drones is that traditional weather data, delivered in hour-long increments at high altitudes, makes the forecast irrelevant for their short, low flights. Does this mean every sprinkle of rain will prevent on-demand delivery services from dropping off your pizza? Will emergency services be unable to provide life-saving equipment if there is a hint of bad weather? As long as UAS rely on traditional weather forecasts, they will be stuck making binary “go/no go” decisions, and will miss out on opportunities to fly around inclement weather.

The faster the UAS industry works to adopt advanced tools such as low altitude MicroWeather navigation, the more reliable drones will become as vehicles that directly affect affect economic interests and public safety. 

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