Drones are flying into weather data deserts. Can they be stopped?
Unseen weather conditions can significantly impact drone delivery operations, including grounding flights
Jen had spent weeks looking for the perfect toy for her daughter for Christmas. Then she found it online and placed the order. Only days before Christmas, she chose drone delivery as the delivery option because the e-commerce site said it would be delivered on Dec. 23, just in time to make it a memorable Christmas for her 6-year-old.
Then it snowed. Delivery was moved to Dec. 24, but that morning Jen received a notice from the seller that the toy would not be delivered until Dec. 27 because of “higher order volume” due to “unforeseen weather delays.”
Jen was devastated.
While fictional, similar scenarios play out on a daily basis around the country as e-commerce delivery drivers must navigate weather, traffic congestion and other issues. Drones are supposed to fix these issues, but research suggests that using drones for deliveries could result in as many delays, if not more.
University of Calgary researchers Mozhou Gao, Chris H. Hugenholtz, Thomas A. Fox, Maja Kucharczyk, Thomas E. Barchyn and Paul R. Nesbit published a paper this summer that looked at the impact weather had on drone flyability. Its conclusion: Expect delays.
The paper looked at common commercial drones (CD), defined by the authors as having “the median weather tolerance of the 50 most commonly registered drones.” The authors reviewed historical weather data over a 10-year period in 100 of the world’s most populous cities and compared it to manufacturer-provided drone weather tolerances for both common commercial drones and drones said to be weather resistant to determine flyability times.
Common drones featured an operational temperature range of 32 degrees Fahrenheit up to 104 degrees with a maximum wind speed resistance of 22 miles per hour. The authors also studied weather-resistant drones (WRD) using minus 4 degrees to 114 degrees, wind speed of 31 miles per hour and 1.9 inches per hour of rain as the guidelines.
The ultimate conclusion is that for most common drones, weather conditions could limit drone flying time to just a few hours per day – approximately 5.7 hours per day or 23.6% of the time. WRDs would be available more often, up to 20.4 hours per day or 85% of the time.
“However, these overall flyability percentages do not distinguish between daylight-only and day-and-night operations,” the report said. “Some time-sensitive commercial drone applications, such as business-to-business deliveries or accident scene reconstruction, are typically bracketed by daylight hours. Including daylight-only constraints reduces global flyability to 8.3% and 51.3% for CDs and WRDs, respectively.”
Depending on location, the time a drone can fly could be dramatically impacted. For instance, in Glasgow, Scotland, where it rains an average of 170 days a year, drones could be grounded for long periods of time.
And it’s not just the weather we can see that impacts drones but also the weather we can’t — wind speeds at 200 or 500 feet off the ground, for instance.
“We have less data on what is happening between 5,000 feet and the ground. Satellites can only get down to about 5,000 feet,” explained Don Berchoff, CEO of TruWeather Solutions. The startup company is working to develop the weather information drone operators need to conduct safe and successful flights.
“Some of the bigger companies … understand that weather is going to impact and disrupt their business model if they don’t get a better handle on it,” he told Modern Shipper. “They have been working on this, but not as much as I would because they are focused on other things. The bottom line is, why I am paying attention to this is because we are going to be able to help them out when they are ready to fly.”
While most of the attention on drone delivery has been focused on the technology itself, Berchoff noted that weather is among the most crucial components to flights — and one of the few things the drone operators have no control over.
“It’s a risk management game at that point and you have to have a handle on it, otherwise you are going to hate the weather guy,” Berchoff said. “The weather guy has to be integrated into the process. … You have to have a system and be consistent. You have to make sure all the people in the supply chain are using the same system.”
Berchoff is a meteorologist by trade, but also has significant logistics experience, having spent 24 years in the military before retiring as a colonel.
Applying military know-how
“I learned some things there about how weather impacted logistics,” he said, relaying a story of how the military had to keep rerouting C5 transport aircraft heading into the U.S. base in Ramstein Air Base in Ramstein-Miesenbach, Germany, in the early 1990s. Looking at the weather revealed the cause: morning fog that was common at the air base.
“That was really a waste of resources, and I came up with a strategy to do weather risk management control,” Berchoff said. Once implemented, the system cut weather delays globally for the military’s tanker lift control group from more than 5,000 a year to around 1,800, saving $200 million in the process, according to Air Force financial analysts.
“That’s what I’m implementing for TruWeather,” he said, noting that he continued to cut his logistics chops when he oversaw operations at an air base in Afghanistan.
Following his military service, Berchoff joined the National Weather Service and is now building TruWeather, founded in 2017, into a science-and-technology solution for unmanned aerial systems (UAS) stakeholders.
“The current weather services … are not built for this industry,” he said. “There is a major gap in low-level weather. You can do all kinds of tricks with weather models, but you are never going to make up the fact that there is a lack of data.”
TruWeather offers Truflight Vertical 360, which is being used by several large companies, including Bell Helicopter, Berchoff said. The company is also beginning work with states, including Ohio, and different segments of the UAS market and has received two NASA grants to set up urban weather infrastructure test beds.
“The next phase of the company’s growth is to on-ramp that new technology and science,” Berchoff said. “We have six companies that we are working with that have unique novel weather sensors.”
All weather is local
For the drone market, and the drone delivery market in particular, weather is local, and most of the weather forecasting systems in use today are not local enough. It’s easy to see the weather in the area of the operator, but as more drone operations move to beyond visual line of sight, it presents a problem.
“You’ve got that short-range problem, where the FAA requires the remote operator to have knowledge of the weather they are flying in, and if you are not on the [drone], how are you going to do that?” Berchoff asked. “They either fly without knowing at increased risk or they don’t fly when they could fly because they don’t know what’s out there.”
An example of this is valleys. Most current weather technology is able to get local forecasts, but valleys can have varying temperatures and wind conditions. The farther you go into the air, the more uncertainty that exists.
“It’s icing, turbulence you can’t see. For drones, it’s winds,” Berchoff said. “Big aircraft can take more winds, they can take crosswinds … but the drones can’t take as much, so what is generally considered benign weather for general aviation [is not for drones].”
TruWeather is working to get sensors into these areas to provide more detailed weather forecasting at near-ground levels for drone operators. Even winds that allow drones to still fly impact the range of the drone, draining battery power quicker, which could shorten the delivery radius or cut the number of deliveries possible in a day. That could change operational decisions.
Berchoff said weather impacts as much as 15% of operational budgets for any company that works outside, including traditional delivery firms, due to lost productivity.
Weather data deserts
The key to getting better weather data for drone operators is combining the available data, such as ground data, radar, precipitation, road cameras and ceiling visibility. Rain showers, for instance, can be missed by traditional radar because of the curvature of the Earth and the way radar systems record data, Berchoff said.
“Once we get that real picture, now we can improve our forecast,” he added, noting that TruWeather expects to eliminate the “weather data desert” that currently exists.
“We built this specifically for this industry because we know the problems and it’s only going to get better over time,” he said. “Most of your drone operators, your drone delivery guys, haven’t fully ingested this yet. Weather is always the afterthought. I’ve learned this my whole career. In 1991 or so, the Air Force fielded the first stealth aircraft and what happened was they tested it only in the desert … where there was no weather and they deployed them in Europe. And within one week, we got word, they couldn’t fly it because the stealth coating was impacted by the rain.”
Despite the technological approach TruWeather is taking, Berchoff said integrating human forecasters will remain a critical part of getting drones off the ground, especially to interpret data that may indicate narrow windows of operational time.
“For drone delivery, it is going to be really critical to have your weather team or weather company [be] more than a service. It really has to be baked in and part of your team,” he said.