It Isn’t Grandpa’s AWOS

A look at the development and future of navaids from David Wartofsky, CEO, SuperAWOS and owner of Potomac (MD) Airfield.

Back in the 1970s, the National Weather Service thought it would be a grand idea to put automated weather observing systems (AWOS) across the U.S., as a network of data feeds for national meteorological models. To be scientifically consistent it was essential that each scientific sensor platform be identical to every other. Later these initial systems evolved into the more sophisticated Automated Surface Observing Systems, or ASOS. During that time, the Federal Aviation Administration realized that it needed some way to provide approved weather to pilots at select commercial airports to meet flight requirements for weather. In comparison to subsidizing three shifts of human weather observers, those quarter- million dollar NWS systems looked like a pretty good deal.

The obvious became obvious, as it often does, so with the best of intentions, FAA had NWS put its scientific weather sensors at a few essential commercial airports, where flight service stations were closing and where weather observers had become a thing of the past. Thus was born the FAA program of Automated Weather Observing Systems (AWOS) that pilots have come to know and love.

These expensive scientific sensor platforms — built to the standards of one government agency while used by pilots to meet the requirements of another, and specified and procured under a stifling federal procurement process — were never intended nor optimized for flight operations. Nor was this technology likely to advance on its own, not any time soon; that took some time and some outside pressures to come about.

In-House Development

About 1987, by the usual bizarre twist of events that leads to such things, my partner and I bought a strange little airport, the Potomac Airfield, located just a few minutes from downtown Washington, D.C. Potomac is an unusual little airport, a great place to try new things, to draw the attention of lots of government agencies (in fact, almost all of them), and, if you can survive the present, it’s a great place to set interesting new precedents for the future.

As a pilot I knew that any airport’s Unicom presence (or lack of it) was the “voice” of the airport. For pilots at Potomac, we wanted to provide a consistent voice, and consistent presence, without having to rely on, or impose on, any one of the tenants.

As anyone running an airport knows, providing consistent Unicom service is a headache. When the airport is quiet, there is no practical way to keep someone standing around in case an isolated pilot might happen by. When an airport is very busy, well, it’s just too darn busy.

In time, we developed an Artificial Intelligence (AI) that could dynamically respond to patterns of communication on the airport’s Unicom frequency, greet inbound pilots, provide radio checks, and also give advisory weather information. Thus was born the first iteration of our Automated Unicom.

Before 9/11, Potomac Airfield had over 70,000 operations per year, from its 2,600-foot runway; that makes for a busy unicom. To keep our system from making a mess of Potomac’s busy unicom frequency required that we make the system’s transmissions dynamically adaptive to ever-changing frequency congestion, being able to balance operationally important information against frequency congestion, just like a polite human weather observer/pilot would do. While it’s easy to know what to say, it’s even more important to know when to shut up, so we made the system smart.

Out to the Industry

Having developed for Potomac a simple solution to a very common problem, we decided to make the system available to other airports as a finished product, and thus was born the Superunicom.

Within any regulated industry every true innovation starts as “illegal,” because existing rules are written about what is already known, not about what may be innovated tomorrow. To make innovation more challenging, in addition to overcoming bureaucratic inertia, one also faces challenges by those economically basking under the existing status quo. So began the regulatory journey.

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