What do George Washington’s Crossing of the Delaware River, D-Day, and the capture of Osama Bin Laden have in common? All three of these pivotal military events relied on weather intelligence for mission success. Today more than ever, accurate weather forecasting is critical to the protection and success of our warfighters. Fortunately, new technologies—from space to ground—offer opportunities for more accurate and timelier weather information that can greatly improve our military’s situational awareness.


GOES-R: A Transformational Change in Hemispheric Weather Intelligence

As the next generation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) weather forecasting system, the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R (GOES-R) program promises forecasters a significant increase in the quality, quantity, and timeliness of weather imagery and data for the continental United States and the Western Hemisphere.

“It starts in space, with the Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI), the primary instrument on GOES-R for imaging Earth’s weather, climate, oceans, and environment,” states Eric Webster, vice president and general manager of Harris’ Environmental Solutions business. “ABI is one of a class of Harris instruments delivering the most advanced meteorological sensing capability   in the world for operational weather forecasting. It offers three times the spectral information, four times the spatial resolutions, and more than five times the speed of coverage provided by the previous GOES system.”

ABI’s 16 sensing channels collect imagery in the visible, near-infrared, and infrared spectrums. This imagery can then be analyzed to provide information about conditions like cloud cover, wind, humidity, ozone, vegetation, and ice cover. “ABI can monitor three times more atmospheric conditions than current geostationary imagers, plus discern objects as small as one-half a kilometer—another asset for enhancing situational awareness,” shares Webster.

Scanning Earth one swath at a time and interleaving those swaths, ABI simultaneously collects full-disk hemispheric images every 15 minutes, regional images every 5 minutes, and severe weather images every 30 seconds. “ABI can track a single storm at full resolution, while continuing to collect continent-wide data and imagery,” Webster says. “Plus, it’s the only weather instrument that can be configured on orbit to provide custom scanning. With this type of flexibility and persistence and with the frequent temporal refresh, relevant data is timelier and forecasts are more accurate. This is a real advantage for activities like target selection and operational mission planning.”

OCONUS Applications

ABI’s transformative technology is also impacting the quality and quantity of weather information outside of the continental United States and the Western Hemisphere. An ABI class instrument called the Advanced Himawari Imager (AHI) has been operational for the Japan Meteorological Agency since July 2015, covering East Asia and the Western Pacific from Japan’s Himawari-8 meteorological satellite. A second AHI was launched on board the Himawari-9 satellite in February 2017. AHI data is available to national meteorological services outside of Japan through the HimawariCloud internet service and HimawariCast data rebroadcasts.

South Korea’s planned Geostationary Korea Multi-Purpose Satellite - 2A (GEOKOMPSAT- 2A) will also have on board an ABI class instrument known as the Advanced Meteorological Imager (AMI). GEO-KOMPSAT-2A and a second satellite, GEO-KOMPSAT-2B, will replace the Communication, Ocean and Meteorological Satellite (COMS-1) in its mission to observe the weather and ocean environment and strengthen the national capability to monitor the environment around the Korean Peninsula.

“A strategically placed ABI class sensor would provide a long-term solution over western Asia and the Indian Ocean, where military operations are currently vulnerable to the aging and limited coverage of existing satellites,” Webster says. “ABI’s high spatial resolution and rapid refresh capability directly address key defense weather requirements critical to protecting the warfighter and ensuring mission success.”

Processing and Delivery of Real-Time Environmental Intelligence

With the deployment of ABI class sensors, forecasters have the opportunity to leverage an unprecedented amount of detailed data and imagery. “The volume and speed of information from the ABI instrument is like switching from black and white to high-definition TV,” says Romy Olaisen, vice president of Harris’ Enterprise Ground Solutions. “It requires a whole new way of receiving, processing, and disseminating the data.”

Olaisen leads the Harris business area that designed, installed, and will operate the GOES-R ground system responsible for receiving the data from six instruments, including the ABI, and delivering it to the National Weather Service and more than 10,000 other direct users. The system architecture provides a true enterprise ground solution; algorithms and computing resources are shared within an open, service-oriented architecture that allows for the easy insertion of other sensor data or algorithms from other satellite missions.

“This flexibility means that other organizations can leverage NOAA’s GOES-R ground system investment and the lessons learned from that effort for weather and other integrated sensor applications,” says Olaisen.

Together these innovations in both sensor and ground technologies are particularly well suited to serve military operations worldwide. For example, ABI technology supports munitions selection by detecting cloud heights, assists maritime operations with better hurricane intensity estimates and sea ice monitoring, and helps troops on the ground with measurements of snow depth. It also provides rapid updates for thunderstorms and severe winds that can take down unmanned aerial vehicles.

Advances in Earth-Observation Sensing from Polar-Orbiting Satellites

Low-Earth-orbiting satellites have long been the workhorses for collecting the weather data used to support global military weather missions. With the retirement of the 60-year Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) and the new Weather Satellite Follow-on program taking shape, the U.S. Air Force has the opportunity to incorporate recent advancements in polar-orbiting electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) imaging capability, believes Eric Webster.

Webster points to the Enhanced Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR) as an example of what “could be” for tomorrow’s Air Force weather mission. “AVHRR has been the primary instrument on the NOAA Polar Operational Environmental Satellite—or POES—system,” he explains. “It produces images used not only to track storms, but also to map water boundaries, lake volume fluctuations and snowmelt, and monitor sea surface temperatures.”

Harris has evolved the spectral capability of AVHRR since it first flew in 1978 on the TIROS-N satellite, with AVHRR/2 serving NOAA-7 missions and AVHRR/3 on NOAA-15 and MetOP-1, Europe’s first polar-orbiting satellite for operational meteorology. Today AVHRR/3 is internationally recognized as the definitive operational imager for global weather data. With six multispectral channels, the radiometer delivers additional capabilities, such as lowlight energy detection, snow/ice discrimination, forest fire detection, and global vegetation indexing. Continued improvements in the technology are available on the more recent Enhanced AVHRR and include four additional channels, detectors that achieve a 1 km constant footprint, and onboard image processing capability.

“Whereas DMSP has had a two-channel operational line scanner, the Enhanced AVHRR has 10 channels for much improved spectrum detection. This means you can distinguish between things like high clouds and low clouds, and between low clouds and snow,” says Webster. “Technology like this—advanced, but with a high technology readiness level and a flight-proven foundation—can be a low-risk sensor solution for a DMSP follow-on program.”

Another type of Earth-observation sensor is the sounder, which uses emitted infrared energy to “look” vertically through the atmosphere. The new generation of meteorological sounders became operational in 2011 with the launch of NOAA’s Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) satellite and its onboard instrument, the Cross-track Infrared Sounder (CrIS). According to NOAA, CrIS represents “a significant enhancement over NOAA’s legacy infrared sounder—High Resolution Infrared Radiation Sounders (HIRS).”

Used daily by the National Weather Service, CrIS scans a 2,200 km swath width with 30 Earth-scene views, drawing upon 2,211 spectral channels over three wavelength ranges. “This provides the data necessary to produce high-resolution, three-dimensional temperature, pressure, and moisture profiles that improve numerical prediction models for both ‘nowcasts’ and long-range forecasting,” explains Harris Chief Solutions Engineer Ron Glumb, part of the Harris team that developed and built the CrIS instrument. CrIS also measures atmospheric chemistry and can detect the concentration of greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, in the atmosphere.

Over the long term, NOAA expects that CrIS data will help improve understanding of climate phenomena, such as El Niño and La Niña, including the continental transport of greenhouse gases.

In addition to serving the Suomi NPP effort, CrIS will play a key role in the new Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), a collaborative effort between NOAA and NASA that will continue the weather and environmental observations of the Suomi NPP satellite and its predecessor, the POES series.

Filling the Local Weather Information Gap

Anyone who has run a field operation knows just how quickly weather can change and how varied it can be even between areas no farther apart than a city block. Regional radar is helpful, but it does not always provide the detail needed to make optimal decisions at a local level.

A new ground-based environmental intelligence tool called Helios® fills this gap, according to Eric Dixon, senior product manager at Harris and one of the developers of Helios®. “It works by taking imagery from existing public and private video cameras and integrating it with National Weather Service warnings and other weather data,” he explains. “It then quickly analyzes all of this using a combination of machine learning and traditional image science, and provides users with real-time identification and classification of weather changes.” With specialized analytics for visibility, road wetness, and road snow, Helios® is particularly helpful for users who need to transport personnel and cargo or respond to emergencies. “By providing real-time, accurate weather information, Helios® supports effective decision making that improves safety and minimizes costly delays,” Dixon says.

Harris Helios® is being incorporated into the development of commercial autonomous vehicles as part of vehicle safety applications to feed road condition information in support of vehicle decision making. Similarly, in the assisted driver market, Helios® feeds “look ahead” road condition information to drivers to enhance safety and routing. For military operations, Helios® can be adapted to unmanned ground vehicles for a wealth of new environmental intelligence. Additionally, Helios® analytics can identify non-traversable obstacles and notify the navigation system to divert the vehicle.

A Key to Military Victory

In talking about weather intelligence and its impact on the warfighter, Eric Webster refers to a popular quotation taken from the ancient Chinese treatise, The Art of War. “It translates as, ‘Know yourself, know your enemy, your victory will never be endangered. Know the ground, know the weather, your victory will then be total,’” he recites. “This is as true today as it was in the 5th Century, B.C., when it was written—and the advantage is with those who have the most accurate, up-to-date information.

“Just as the military landscape and warfighting environment have evolved, so too has our ability to monitor the weather in much greater detail with more frequent updates,” says Webster. “Today’s satellite and ground capabilities represent a quantum leap in the accuracy, timeliness, and effectiveness of weather information for mission planning and execution. Our servicemen and women deserve only the very best in environmental intelligence.”


As published in the Harris Space and Intelligence Systems publication, Insights for a Better World, Ensuring Superiority in Space.