Furthering safety of Advanced Aircraft Mobility in low-altitude weather conditions

  • Published
  • By Tim Tresslar

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFRL) – AFWERX Prime and the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center Architecture and Integration Weather office have signed a memorandum of agreement allowing them to collaborate on efforts to reduce the impact of low-altitude weather on Advanced Air Mobility platforms.
The three-year agreement outlines roles and responsibilities for AFWERX Prime and AFLCMC in providing the services and funding needed to support efforts to mitigate the effects of low-altitude weather on AAM while also preserving a combat-credible force increasingly impacted by the dynamic weather found at altitudes up to 12,000 feet mean sea level.
AAM is a transportation system that moves people and cargo by using aircraft with advanced technologies, including electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft, through both controlled and uncontrolled airspace.
“This agreement marks a crucial step forward in the rapid fielding of AAM technology,” said Darshan Divakaran, AFWERX head of Airspace Innovation and Prime Partnerships. “AIPP and AFLCMC Architecture and Integration Weather will bring their respective expertise and resources to bear on addressing the challenges AAM platforms face as they navigate low altitude weather environments. This collaboration will drive the improvements in AAM operational capability and resiliency necessary for the Department of the Air Force to meet its national security obligations and maintain air and space dominance.”
He added that AFWERX Prime has also been working on accelerating AAM efforts with the Federal Aviation Administration, NASA, the Department of Transportation’s AAM Interagency Working Group, as well as other federal agencies, industry and academia.
Ensuring the safe integration and routine operation of AAM will require available, accurate low-terrestrial weather information that can be used for flight planning and scheduling as well as real-time operations, Divakaran said.
“We need to understand the sensor requirements as well as the specifications to inform policies. This means providing validated data for actionable intelligence. We are setting up the airspace proving grounds at Eglin Air Force Base and other key sites across the nation for both military and civil efforts. A key focus of the proving grounds is to work with AFLCMC Architecture and Integration Weather to understand AAM weather requirements and help validate weather standards for Department of Defense AAM integration efforts. By the end of 2023, we will have actual electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft and other AAM vehicles testing at bases. This also will include surrogate aircraft such as uncrewed aircraft systems,” Divakaran added.   The weather conditions found at low altitudes present unique challenges for AAM vehicles, which fly and hover in an area meteorologists call the Boundary Layer, the lowest couple of kilometers in the atmosphere, said Michael Horner, a research, development, test and evaluation meteorologist with AFLCMC Architecture and Integration Weather.
“Weather sensors at the surface and weather satellites hundreds and thousands of miles above the ground cannot fully capture weather conditions in the Boundary Layer,” Horner said. “Furthermore, weather models aren’t all that accurate in that layer and, in some cases, can’t be relied upon. What’s needed is nontraditional aviation weather support equipment such as wind lidar sensors, weather drones, additional ceilometers and tower-mounted anemometers to provide current operational weather conditions.”
Though the Air Force is full of subject matter experts, connecting them to programs where they can use their talents and expertise can be difficult, said Lt. Col. John Tekell, AFWERX Prime division chief.  In this case, the AFWERX fellowship program was instrumental in linking Prime to those who can solve weather problems unique to AAM vehicles, he added.
“AAM platforms require a different kind of weather service than traditional aircraft and AFLCMC Architecture and Integration Weather provides the input needed for next-generation airspace management, low-altitude and high-density operations, and autonomous flight operations of hybrid and electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft,” Tekell said. “Through Agility Prime, AFLCMC Architecture and Integration Weather now also provides weather expertise to help build a national strategy for AAM through the congressionally mandated Department of Transportation interagency working group.”
Under the agreement, AFLCMC Architecture and Integration Weather will provide not only weather expertise, but also develop and authenticate weather requirements and standards for the Department of the Air Force. Moreover, their personnel will identify needed weather data, equipment, sensors and software for AAM operations while also validating the utility of weather systems and software from vendors, the agreement states.
The agreement also calls for AFLCMC Architecture and Integration Weather to provide weather testing support to the 96th Test Wing, the 413th Flight Test Squadron and similar organizations, coordinate and collaborate with weather colleagues in other federal agencies to further advance AAM initiatives, and help develop turbulence sensitivity categorizations for electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft and other AAM vehicles.
Aircraft testing and operations are inseparable from weather, Horner said. When the Wright brothers tested their powered flying machine, they did so at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, because it offered consistent 15 mph winds with limited rainfall.
“They made history in 1903 with the world’s first motor-operated airplane flight, due in part to favorable weather conditions,” Horner said. “The lesson of this story is, you can’t think about flying without considering the weather. That was true for the Wright brothers and it’s still true today, especially for AAM.”
About AFRL
The Air Force Research Laboratory is the primary scientific research and development center for the Department of the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development, and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 11,500 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit www.afresearchlab.com.

The innovation arm of the DAF and a directorate within the Air Force Research Laboratory brings cutting edge American ingenuity from small businesses and start-ups to address the most pressing challenges of the DAF. Employs approximately 325 military, civilian and contractor personnel at six hubs and sites executing an annual $1.4B budget. Since 2019, has executed 4,671 contracts worth more than $2B to strengthen the U.S. defense industrial base and drive faster technology transition to operational capability. For more information, visit: www.afwerx.com
The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center is one of six centers reporting to the Air Force Materiel Command. Led by a 3-star general officer, AFLCMC is charged with life cycle management of Air Force weapon systems from their inception to retirement. AFLCMC provides holistic management of weapon systems across their life cycle and simplifies/consolidates staff functions and processes to curtail redundancy and enhance efficiency. AFLCMC's operating structure provides an integrated framework for decision making and process optimization across the weapon system life cycle. AFLCMC people work closely with their counterparts at the other five AFMC centers, each with a core mission focus:  Air Force Research Laboratory (science & technology); Air Force Test Center (test & evaluation); Air Force Sustainment Center (maintenance, repair, overhaul and supply chain management); Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center (strategic systems); and the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center (installation support).