Deriving visibility information from weather cameras has been in the works for several years—and you may be in a position to help determine if it is ready for prime time.  The Visibility Estimation through Image Analytics (VEIA) Program looks at FAA weather camera images and derives an estimate of the visibility using an automated comparison to clear day images.  The FAA will be evaluating this product starting in April 2021.  They are looking for Alaskan pilots willing to help with the analysis by looking at the camera-derived visibility, examining observations and completing a questionnaire.  If successful, this program could significantly expand the number of locations across the state where visibility information is provided to the aviation community.

Background
The FAA Weather Camera Program is very popular–used by pilots, FAA Flight Service Station staff, National Weather Service forecasters, and just about anyone else interested in current weather conditions and trends.  The capability was first operationally demonstrated by a University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate student’s PhD thesis project, by installing camera stations at Anaktuvuk Pass, Kaltag, and Ruby.  The demonstration was supposed to run from April through October of 1999.  Subsequently the FAA took over those three camera sites and, through several twists and turns, ramped up to the statewide operational network found in Alaska today.  There are currently over 230 camera locations, typically comprising three or four cameras per site.  The system also hosts camera data from the extensive Canadian network of stations and has integrated 13 Colorado weather cameras into the FAA Weather Camera Program through a partnership with the Colorado Division of Aeronautics.  Building on the success of the program in Alaska, the FAA is also installing 23 cameras along popular flight routes in Hawaii to enhance aviation safety and pilot decision-making.

With images updated every ten minutes and distributed through the program website, pilots may look at locations along routes they intend to fly to see if conditions are suitable for VFR operations, using this supplementary source of data.  By viewing images over the previous few hours, one can also look at recent trends in weather conditions.  Even more information is available in locations where camera sites are collocated with AWOS or ASOS stations, as this data is displayed along with the camera views. This gives the user the benefit of both visual images as well as current conditions in a textual (METAR) format as sources of information to consider in making flight planning assessments.  An example of this type of display is seen in the accompanying illustration from Ketchikan International Airport (PAKT).  But there are far fewer AWOS and ASOS stations in Alaska than weather cameras — so can we derive more quantitative weather information from the camera data itself?

FAA Weather Camera Display and current METAR. The display of weather camera observations at Ketchikan, where cameras looking in four directions show conditions and may be compared against an annotated clear day image.

Extracting Visibility from WeatherCams
A variety of techniques have been explored to derive visibility estimates from weather camera observations, including image processing and crowdsourcing techniques.  For several years FAA-funded research has been underway at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory to use image processing techniques to derive visibility from weather camera data.  Images from approximately 10 days of observations are used to develop a “best” clear day composite image. New images from the cameras are then compared with the composite image. An edge detection algorithm, using a ratio technique, is used to estimate visibility in statute miles.  The results are presented via website along with the trend showing potential changes over a maximum of six hours.  An example of the output from VEIA is shown with the weather camera views in the illustration from the Seward Airport (PAWD).  This technique only works during the day when there is adequate illumination to create suitable images, so no information is derived by VEIA during hours of darkness.

FAA Weather Camera Display and Camera Derived Visibility Estimates. This display includes weather camera observations at Seward, where cameras also look in four directions to show condition, and may be compared against an annotated clear day image. The visibility estimates are presented to the user to show the most current estimate of visibility and the visibility trends at a given location.

How can you help?
This spring, the FAA’s Aviation Weather Demonstration and Evaluation Services team will be evaluating the VEIA product.  The team is looking for a cross-section of individual end-users to actively examine and evaluate the experimental data.

The evaluation will be conducted between April and June 2021.  Participants will be provided individual accounts to access products and provided with training materials to understand the VEIA capabilities and functionality.  All participants are asked to use the VEIA system and participate in two virtual meetings to provide feedback to the evaluation team.  At the end of the assessment, each participant is expected to complete a final questionnaire.  Please consider participating in this cutting-edge research to expand weather reporting capabilities at weather camera sites and develop additional sources of weather information for pilots, dispatchers, meteorologists, and Flight Service Specialists in Alaska.  If you fit into one of the following categories and would like to participate, use the registration links below to sign up:

VEIA Registration links:

Pilot:  https://forms.gle/cZLychGHER9fgeuk9

Dispatcher:  https://forms.gle/x5UMCYBtUXxNhdJT7

Meteorologist:  https://forms.gle/VFewc2bnucnxoEfCA

FAA Flight Services:  https://forms.gle/7MQWDHdfbZkHuxmcA

If you have questions or need more information, please contact Jill Miller at [email protected] or call 609-412-9080 (east coast time zone).

If you are already a user of the FAA Weather Camera System, please consider devoting a few hours of your time to evaluate this new product, which has the potential to significantly expand the network of locations reporting visibility in Alaska.  If this technique proves to be successful, it will be a significant advancement for the network of reporting points in Alaska and a momentous innovation in extracting supplementary information from weather cameras.

 

[This article was originally published in the April-June 2021 issue of the Alaska Airmen’s Association newsletter,  The Transponder.]