FAA is making a significant upgrade to their Alaska Aviation Weather Camera website.  Pilots are invited to test the site, and provide input to help refine the presentation of aviation weather data that will eventually be extended nation-wide.   A Beta-test version of the site is currently available. It integrates camera images with weather observations, forecasts and pilot reports, customized for aviation. The Aviation Weather Camera program is seeking feedback from pilots both in Alaska, and from across the country.

Background
Aviation weather cameras have helped Alaskan pilots make flight planning decisions since 1999.  Starting with prototype system constructed by a university graduate student that included only three camera locations, the network today lets pilots see the weather at over 220 locations from all parts of the state.  This visual form of weather data helps in several ways.  Each site has between two and four cameras, pointed in different directions, to let us see the weather, within the last 10 minutes.  In some places, the cameras are the sole source of weather information. At other locations they are co-located with an AWOS or ASOS, and give us a means not only to evaluate the accuracy of the METAR–but to see if the reported ceiling is comprised of threatening cumulus buildups, or just a thin layer of clouds with sunlight streaming through.

Initially the website was limited to the current camera image, along with a “clear day” image for comparison.  To help calibrate what we were seeing, the clear day image was annotated with the distance and elevation of prominent landmarks.  The site also featured a video loop that allowed the user to play a time-lapse of the past six hours, which can be tremendously valuable when it comes to monitoring weather trends.  The current operational site includes current surface weather observations (METARs), along with Terminal Aerodrome Forecasts (TAFs).  More recently, PIREPs joined the party, taking a significant step forward in providing a more complete idea of conditions a pilot would encounter on a cross-country flight.

Overview of the Beta test site, showing weather cameras, current and forecast weather, pilot reports and airports. Note that while it contains real data, it is a test site not intended for operational use.

Whats new?
The next version of the website continues all the features we have come to count on, and focuses on presenting the information more visually.  The Beta-test site starts with a satellite base map (although you may still select a more conventional map base if desired), and provides a more graphic depiction of the weather data.  METARs are color coded based on the category of weather reported, green for VFR, red for IFR, etc.  For those stations that have a TAF, it too is color coded by the individual time periods of the forecast, allowing a user to see if conditions are forecast to improve, without even having to click on the icon.  Drop-down menus at the top make the program highly configurable, but the most popular features that pilots want to toggle on and off still remain available as buttons on the main page.  A considerable amount of sophistication has gone into making the icons dynamically change as you zoom in or out, to avoid saturating the screen when looking at the big picture. A link to the legend is available in the lower right hand corner to help interpret the icons, many of which change as a function of scale.  Not all features are functional yet, so some menus or buttons are grayed out.

An example airport cluster with current and forecast weather, and a weather camera.

Clicking on the weather camera icon brings the first of multiple displays showing the conditions, along with a color-coded indication of the current and forecast conditions

How you can help
Like any significant tool of this nature, there are many ways to use it.  A core group of volunteer pilots were selected at the start of the project to test the Alpha version of the website and help advise project developers on refinements to make the program responsive to our needs.  These efforts are being coordinated by Dr. Daniela Kratchounova, from the Flight Deck Human Factors Research Lab at the FAA’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute (CAMI). The program is now in a Beta-testing mode of operation, and Dr. Kratchounova is looking for a much larger set of users to put it through its paces.  Since the website is being designed for the future extension of the program beyond Alaska, it has to work in parts of the country with greater density of airports and weather stations than are found in Alaska, so she is looking for pilots from across the country to participate in the program at this time.  While the FAA weather cameras are only in Alaska, supplemented by Canadian and some third party camera sites, the METARs, TAFs and PIREPs cover the entire country.  If you are outside of Alaska, consider trying the site for the areas you fly, to see how information is presented. To understand what the weather cameras add, scroll up to Alaska and evaluate the weather for a flight from Anchorage to Fairbanks, where you will find a number of camera sites to see what this visual data adds to the METARs along the route.  The beta test site may be found at: avcamstest.faa.gov.  [Note: The latest version of the site became operational on May 1st–so if you have looked at this link before, make sure to check after this date.] If you are not familiar with the current operational site, look at:  avcams.faa.gov

May 1, 2017 Update: The beta-site became operational on May 1st, with a new address: avcamsplus.faa.gov. FAA continues to seek user input using the Pilot Feedback button, as additional development is continuing. The beta-test link will be re-directed to the new address. The legacy site avcams.faa.gov, will continue to operate in parallel for a few months.

Providing feedback
After trying the weather camera site for a while, look for the “Pilot Feedback” button that leads to a number of questions regarding the features of the site.  Scrolling down this window reveals a matrix of detailed questions to rate the different features on a 1-5 scale, which sends your “vote” to the FAA.  I know— one’s eyes can glaze over when first encountering this array of questions. My suggestion is to read through the questions, close the window and spend some more time using the site before going back and completing the survey.  This may seem a little daunting, but with several hundred people using the site, compiling feedback using a form like this is about the only reasonable way to see trends.  Note, however, for each question area there is a comment field. This is your opportunity to tell the FAA what you liked, or what didn’t work, and how you think it could be improved.  I would suggest paying close attention to what zoom level you use, as you evaluate a flight route, and the features that are displayed at that scale.

To provide feedback, rate the different features using a 1-5 scale. Note that for each question area, there is a place for to comment on features you liked, or think should be changed.

This is a significant development effort, so please take the time to give the system a good work-out, and let FAA know what you think.  As one who has used the weather camera program since its inception, I am excited to see camera data integrated in with the other weather products we use for flight planning.  There are more features planned for the system, so look forward to watching this site continue to develop.

For now, please fill up your coffee cup, click on the link, and spend some quality time looking at this site.  Your efforts to evaluate the program may have a significant impact on where it goes from here!