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The weather biz

Inside IBM’s The Weather Company

When pilots obtain weather information, they may not think much about where it originates.
This timeline shows how The Weather Company and SiriusXM team up to produce radar imagery in the cockpit. It all begins with collecting imagery from the nation’s network of ground-based NEXRAD Doppler weather radars. Next, The Weather Company mosaics the composite reflectivity (CREF) returns to fill in any gaps in coverage. Then “tiles” of this imagery are created for broadcast and sent to SiriusXM, which sends the final product via datalink to its customers’ receivers and display. And all of this happens in two minutes. The Weather Company
This timeline shows how The Weather Company and SiriusXM team up to produce radar imagery in the cockpit. It all begins with collecting imagery from the nation’s network of ground-based NEXRAD Doppler weather radars. Next, The Weather Company mosaics the composite reflectivity (CREF) returns to fill in any gaps in coverage. Then “tiles” of this imagery are created for broadcast and sent to SiriusXM, which sends the final product via datalink to its customers’ receivers and display. And all of this happens in two minutes. The Weather Company

Sure, we’re all familiar with the government’s Leidos Flight Service-provided briefing products via 800-WXBRIEF, 1800wxbrief.com, and flight service frequencies, plus the weather services provided by Garmin Pilot, FltPlan.com, and ForeFlight. But there’s a whole world of weather services out there, and weather is a big business.

So big that corporate giant IBM has bought into the weather business. In 2016, IBM bought The Weather Company (TWC, not to be confused with The Weather Channel, which we’ll get to in a bit)—aptly named because of its wide range of weather-related business units, including what was previously named WSI Corporation. IBM provides weather forecasts and other products out of its eight forecast offices around the world. The main office is in Andover, Massachusetts, where 14 forecasters work. Others are in Atlanta; Seoul, South Korea; Tokyo; and Birmingham, England. These offices serve clients in their regions, including, from the Birmingham office, Eurocontrol. Some forecasting units are embedded in airline flight dispatch offices, such as United Airlines’ in Chicago; JetBlue’s in New York; and American Airlines’ in Dallas.

Making use of IBM’s computing power and artificial intelligence (the “Watson” component we hear about), The Weather Company puts out terminal aerodrome forecasts (TAFs) for airports all over the world, updating them in five-minute intervals using 100 different weather models as well its own proprietary model—IBM GRAF (global high-resolution atmospheric forecasting). In all, TWC puts out forecasts for 2.2 billion locations around the globe—every 15 minutes.

GRAF’s high resolution and fine granularity lets TWC override government-issued TAFs, says Bill Duncan, aviation forecast operations leader for TWC. The company uses government data, but it’s GRAF’s dense, three-kilometer-square (15 km over the oceans) grid analysis of hundreds of variables that makes the difference. Even so, there’s room for human expertise. TWC’s HOTL (human over the loop) process lets forecasters apply filters to tweak a model’s output if they think quirks are preventing it from generating forecasts correctly.

Another TWC asset is TAPS—the Turbulence Auto Pirep System. TAPS is a turbulence information-sharing system between some 1,000 participating aircraft and a TWC algorithm. Using an airplane’s Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) datalink messaging service, TAPS compares forecast with real-time turbulence, generates turbulence updates, and sends them back to the participating aircraft for more accurate predictions affecting their routes.

Some pilots may recall using WSI’s Pilotbrief online weather and flight planning website in times past. Along with TAPS, it too was snapped up in the 2016 IBM-TWC deal. Today, Pilotbrief is marketed as WSI Pilotbrief Optima, and is available on the internet as well as in iPad or other electronic flight bag formats, as well as to FBOs. Oh, and an adaptation of Pilotbrief Optima is used on AOPA Weather (aopa.org/wx).

Buying TWC also gave IBM the Weather Underground (“Wunderground”) app, a crowdsourcing feed that collects data from more than 100,000 personal weather stations. TWC feeds this data into both the app and its models.

As for The Weather Channel, IBM also bought up its prime digital assets: The Weather Channel app and weather.com. Ownership of The Weather Channel broadcast business remains currently with Weather Group, LLC, a subsidiary of Los Angeles-based Allen Media Group.

Last, the IBM purchase gave it WSI’s aviation weather feed, including its datalinked weather radar imagery—which provides base and composite reflectivity products, along with the current icing potential (CIP) and forecast icing potential (FIP) data stream, METARs, TAFs, and other government-produced aviation weather products. IBM mosaics the radar imagery then sends the entire feed to general aviation pilots for distribution through SiriusXM Aviation’s Pilot Pro, Pilot Preferred, Pilot Express, or ForeFlight weather subscription service levels. This service is only compatible with newer panel-mounted datalink receivers, like the Garmin GDL 69/69A SXM—or iPads via Bluetooth connection to portable receivers like Garmin’s GDL 50/51/52.

SiriusXM Aviation’s Dave Hubner says the company’s datalinked composite radar imagery is updated every 2.5 minutes on the display in the cockpit. He says this update rate is five to 15 minutes faster than the government’s FIS-B composites radar refresh rate, and provides more accurate and timely identification of radar returns.

SiriusXM, by the way, is a publicly traded company owned by Liberty Media Corporation. It was not part of the IBM-TWC purchase. Think of it as connecting TWC/IBM, through SiriusXM Aviation weather, to its pilot/customers.

Another GA datalink weather provider is Baron Services, which provides radar imagery and other weather data to owners of older datalink receivers. Baron, under the WxWorx and XM WX brand names, delivers SiriusXM Aviation’s Aviator, Aviator LT, and Aviator Pro subscriptions.

We’ve covered a lot of territory in the weather business—and it’s only the aviation portion run by The Weather Company, SiriusXM Aviation, and Baron Services. Think of the weather services needed by the vast agricultural, industrial, media, recreational, and insurance segments. Of course, The Weather Company isn’t the only supplier of weather data. There are plenty of competitors, but the company says it was determined to be the overall most accurate provider globally by ForecastWatch, a premier organization for evaluating the accuracy of weather forecasts.

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Thomas A. Horne

Thomas A. Horne

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Tom Horne has worked at AOPA since the early 1980s. He began flying in 1975 and has an airline transport pilot and flight instructor certificates. He’s flown everything from ultralights to Gulfstreams and ferried numerous piston airplanes across the Atlantic.

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