Iridium GO! In-flight Weather

Peace of Mind with In-flight Weather

Pilots ideally want to have access to the latest weather while en route in their aircraft. However, not many general aviation aeroplanes have weather radar equipment. Garmin offers a package for G1000 flyers to get satellite weather in the G1000 equipped glass cockpit aircraft. Avidyne offers a similar package. Now, AeroPlus offers a datalink option that works from your iPad in combination with a hotspot device from Iridium.

Wifi Hotspot

Those of us that do not have the above glass cockpit weather option installed in the aircraft, now have a good alternative available to them: Iridium GO! in combination with the AeroPlus Aviation Weather app for iOS (iPhone | iPad).

The Iridium satellite network coverage is from pole to pole. It consists of 66 active satellites in orbit, and some additional spare satellites to serve in case of failure. It was developed in the 1980s and became commercially available in the late 90s. It is the only satellite network with worldwide coverage. Iridium is launching new satellites into orbit in 2016 and 2017. These satellites will fill in some gaps from defect and old satellites and when the launch program is completed, the new satellites will also provide a better speed for data transfer.

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Aircraft equipped with AeroPlus datalink weather solution.

Even though the Iridium satellites do not offer you at this moment the data speed to be able to watch YouTube movies while in-flight, the speed is good enough to get you the latest weather and rain radar imagery within just a few minutes of time. Also, you can make or receive voice calls, send text messages and even update your Twitter account. Don’t expect to be browsing the internet over the Iridium satellite network. That won’t work.

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The Iridium GO! mounted on top of the dashboard in a single engine piston (SEP) aircraft.

To get the best out of an Iridium satellite connection, keep the following in mind:

  1. Get a full signal before downloading any data. Full signal = 5 bar signal.
  2. Make sure the antenna has an unobstructed view of the sky. If you use the Iridium GO! in your aircraft, consider getting an external antenna: either a suction cup aviation antenna or an external roof antenna.
  3. Keep your messages and data requests simple and short. The Iridium satellites run from pole to pole in about 7 minutes. After that, the satellite has to pass your connection to another satellite. This “handshake” can disturb your message delivery or delay it, so keep them short.
  4. Do not compare the Iridium satellite network to your Wifi network at home or your 4G mobile connection. Iridium designed their satellite system in the 80s. It works very well if you stay within its limitations.

In-Flight Aviation Weather

Iridium offers third parties the option to develop apps that work optimally with the Iridium GO! We are a partner with Iridium and have adjusted our weather app for iOS to bring the latest aviation weather into your cockpit. You can download METAR, TAF and GFS weather model data from anywhere in the world. A rain radar overlay with lightning data is available as well.*

* Rain radar data is available only in North America, Central America, Europe, Australia, and in parts of the Pacific. Offshore it is not always available. The METAR, TAF and numerical weather model data are available worldwide. The lightning data is available nearly worldwide, except for roughly the areas at the poles, most of Russia (except the Vladivostok area), the southern part of South America, Greenland and Iceland.

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Downloading textual weather data goes fast. The textual weather information for a particular airport takes anywhere from 30 seconds to one minute to download. You can download the textual weather for nearby stations at the same time as well and the download will still take in most cases take less than 2 minutes. Downloading a rain radar map overlay takes anywhere from 2-5 minutes to complete, depending on the signal strength (how many bars) of the Iridium connection. It takes about 30 seconds to build up a data call connection after which time the download will start. The whole connection and download procedure with the Iridium GO! device and Iridium satellite network is managed from within our weather app. If you are using something else like, for example, a Thuraya connection, then you have to manage the satellite connection yourselves.

What separates Iridium Go! from Others?

There are several other satellite weather solutions around based as well on Iridium technology. Most offer aviation weather provided over the Iridium network, but the device then works with a different Iridium chip called the Short Burst Data (SBD) chip. That chipset does not support voice calls. The Iridium GO! offers voice communication next to data.

Voice Calls & Weather Data

You can link up to five smartphones to one Iridium Go! over an internal Wifi network created by the Iridium GO! in the aircraft to receive or make phone calls as well as get the latest en route and destination weather.

Call using your Bluetooth Headset

If you use a Bose A20 or other Bluetooth headset, you can use your noise cancelling headset to make clear phone calls from your smartphone through the Iridium GO! to ground based stations. Being able to make voice calls is especially beneficial when crossing oceans. You can use the voice call feature to inform the destination airport, car rental company or your friends when you are arriving later than expected.

Iridium Go! Features

Iridium GO! offers you the following features:

  • Make phone calls from your iPhone/Android phone over the Iridium satellite network;
  • Use your Bluetooth-connected headset to make the calls;
  • Connect to the device over a Wifi connection;
  • Receive voice calls and SMS messages for free;
  • Connect 5 smartphones or tablets to the Iridium Go! at the same time over Wifi;
  • GEOS rescue service subscription included;
  • Unlimited data subscription option available;
  • Flexible Iridium subscription plans including pre-paid options;
  • GPS Tracking at 5-minute or longer intervals;
  • Waterproof housing and thus easy to bring along on your boat or trip away from the aircraft;
  • Support for external aviation and marine antennas.
  • Send short e-mail/SMS/text messages for a third of the data rate price.

Screenshots of Iridium Go in Action!

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Connect your iPhone or iPad to the Iridium GO! Device over the Wifi connection created by the Iridium GO! in your aircraft. You can create separate user accounts in the Iridium GO! Device and five persons on board can connect at the same time to the Iridium GO! over Wifi. The signal strength (5 bars) is clearly visible and next to the red phone icon in the top bar you see the symbol telling you that the data connection is up and running.

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Fetch the latest weather data from the app. Select the area for which you want to receive rain radar data and press the refresh icon on the screen (top, second button). The app will initiate a download session and will even set up the outbound connection to the Iridium satellites for you and disconnect again after it has downloaded the weather.

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After 2-5 minutes, depending on how strong your Iridium satellite connection is, you will get the latest rain radar data. The weather for airports including METAR, TAF, GFS-model data such as freezing level, winds aloft and a clouds diagram are downloaded per individual airport. The download of airport weather often takes less than one minute, but if the Iridium GO! does not have an optimal sight on the satellites, it might take 1-2 minutes to download.

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Another example

We are flying west of Italy and request for a rain radar overlay. Within our app we initiate a data call through the Iridium GO! and a few minutes later, the rain radar data is there. We can zoom in in the usual way on our iPad or iPhone screen. Just zoom into the area for which you would like to receive rain radar data before initiating the download, then that is the area for which you will receive the data.

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The above screenshots show the zoomed in rain-radar overlay. The right screenshots show the lifted index values. We are also interested in the latest weather for LIQO. LIQO does not provide TAF forecasts, but the rest of the information is downloaded within minutes as we do on our iPad. For airports that do provide TAF data, the TAF is of course also provided. Below a screenshot of how the area looks from an iPad perspective/screen.

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Togehter with the METAR and TAF data, additional weather model data is downloaded for this airport and area as well. The METAR provides actual weather, while the “Weather” and “Clouds” tabs provide you with the most recent forecasts based on numerical weather models.

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The above clouds diagrams show the forecasted cloud layers, freezing level and -20 degrees Celsius level, all based on weather model data. The dark colour of the clouds indicates a higher probability for thunderstorms and convective clouds based. You can play the forecast forward in time to see how the weather could potentially develop over time. This information is of value as this airport does not produce a TAF forecast.

Winds Aloft and Dynamic Isogonic Lines

The Weather app also gives you information on the winds aloft at altitude and can draw dynamic pressure charts for a current and future situation. The information comes from numerical weather models, so would be something you most likely do when preparing for you flight or while still on the ground.

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Actual, Model-based and Delayed Weather Info

Some of the weather data you received is based on actual observations. For example, METAR data for an airport is based on actual (system) observation and measurements. However, this data is not released every minute, so have a look at the timestamp of the METAR weather you receive over your satellite link and think about the type of data you receive. Is it actual weather or a forecast and is this prediction made by a forecaster (TAF) or based on a numerical weather model. Rain Radar data is based on real weather. However, the radar image is delayed. The delay could be 10-20 minutes. Don’t use the rain radar image for strategic weather penetration purposes. Download, several rain radar overlays over a period, to see how the weather is moving. TAF and weather model data is based on local weather knowledge combined with weather model data. In the case of TAF forecasts, a local weather forecaster will predict the weather for you. In other situations, you are getting the raw data of the weather model. Be aware that this weather model is model data and not an actual observation.

Rain Radar data is the actual weather. However, the radar information is old information by the time it is displayed on your iPhone or iPad in the cockpit. The delay could be as much as 10-20 minutes. Don’t use the rain radar image for strategic weather penetration purposes. Fly around the area. Don’t go and push it. Our app and the rain radar data are not meant to be used for that purpose. For that, you would need to add an airborne radar system on top of our satellite-based rain radar solution.

Lightning data offered by our app** is actual data and is displayed on your iPhone or iPad screen with hardly any delay. Still, don’t use it to penetrate severe weather. Use the extra information to stay away from thunderstorm activities.

Be aware that numerical weather model data is not giving you weather data that is observed. It is based on a theoretical model.

Lightning Data

We provide lightning data worldwide** . For example, all of Africa and even oceans are covered, and the strike data is provided in near real-time. There is a one to two minutes delay to deliver you the strike data through the satellite link and for processing the data. Next to cloud-to-ground lightning, we also support in-cloud lightning.

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The above image shows lightning areas in West Africa. There is no rain radar available in Africa as there are no doppler radar stations there to be found.

Augmented Radar

The augmented radar option in our app shows the rain radar, where available, next to the cloud tops as is visible in the above image. The cloud top data comes from satellite data, while the rain radar is provided through doppler radar stations. Together with the near realtime lightning data, it gives you a pretty good idea of where to expect severe weather and thunderstorms.

Dangerous Thunderstorm Alerts (DTAs)

We teamed up with Earth Networks where they provide us with lightning data as well as dangerous thunderstorm alerts. Their lightning detectors detect cloud to ground lightning as well as in-cloud strikes.

** Lightning data is available about everywhere in the world except for very remote areas such as at the poles, the southern part of South America, most of Russia (except the Vladivostok area) and several other areas. 

Coverage Area

The airport data such as METAR and TAF as well as the numerical GFS weather model data is available worldwide.

The rain radar is provided for North America, Central America, Europe, Australia and parts of the Pacific. In North America, the lower part of Canada is still covered including the State of Alaska. However, there is no rain radar coverage in the northern part of Canada. Greenland and Iceland are not included in the coverage area. Central America is covered including the Caribbean area. All of Western Europe is covered except for a small portion near the Mediterranean sea in the South of France and off the coast over oceans and seas. If you do fly there, use the augmented radar feature and make sure you download the lightning strikes for the area.

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The above image is a part of the Caribbean area. The orange triangle is the SIGMET warning for the area, due to a major storm taking place at the moment this screenshot was taken.

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Above screenshot is from Saipan Island, which is a part of the Northern Mariana Islands.

External Antenna

The Iridium GO! can be used without any external antenna or connected to an external antenna. The external roof antenna is available as approved component under FAA or EASA rules (minor mod). However, it might not be necessary to install an external antenna at all. There is also an external antenna for use inside the aircraft with a suction cup for which no approval or certification is required. It is called the Iridium Aviation Glass Mount Antenna and specially made for aviation purposes. The external plane roof antenna, which is known as the Iridium Aviation External Patch Antenna, can be bought through your aircraft avionics provider. 

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Web-based Configuration Tool

You can easily configure the Iridium GO! using apps from Iridium for iOS or Android. There is also a web-based configuration tool build into the Iridium Go! The device creates a WiFi network and with any computer or tablet you can connect to it with your web browser to configure it, create user accounts, etc.

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GEOS Rescue Service

The Iridium GO! includes a subscription for the worldwide GEOS rescue service. With some of the other options, this comes at a premium or is not an option at all. You can alert GEOS or set your alarm addresses using the web configuration tool.

Piece of Mind

The fact that I can make a phone call from any place on earth and get the latest weather to my cockpit independent of where I am flying gives me a piece of mind. I don’t have to call or retrieve weather data, but the fact that I have this option is great.

Iridium GO! Device Price

We don’t sell the Iridium GO! device or Iridium Data Plans. Search around. You should be able to get the Iridium GO! device for around $680.

Iridium GO! Data Plans

Iridium offers prepaid cards valid for 12 months and giving you 1000 data minutes (GO! 1000 & 1 Year)
Purchase price: 550.00 – 600,00 euro ex VAT;
Which is about: 50,00 euro per month ex VAT.

What you get:

  • 1000 data minutes per year;
  • Outgoing voice calls are charged at twice the data minute rate, so a 5-minutes call is charged as 10 data minutes;
  • Free incoming voice calls;
  • Free incoming SMS messages;
  • Short SMS/Text/E-mail send out with the Iridium Go! app are charged at 1/3 of the data minute rate.
  • Free GEOS rescue subscription (comes with the Iridium GO! device).

AeroPlus Weather App Subscription Plans

The AeroPlus Weather app is offered at a subscription price through the Apple Appstore

  • 12-month subscription for 49,99 euro
  • 3-month seasonal subscription for 19,99 euro

Download our aviation weather app from the Apple AppStore here.
For more information on the Iridium Go! check out their website: www.iridiumgo.com.
Read this review article about Iridium Go! in Plane & Pilot Magazine.

*The data speed of the satellite network is at a 2400 baud data rate – about 20 times slower than the old dial-up modem 56K rate. Who can remember that time when we had to use a dial-up connection with a modem to connect to the Internet? A 50 KB file could take 4-7 minutes or longer to download over an Iridium data connection. Where you theoretically get 2400 baud with 5 bars Iridium signal, you will only get a speed of about 1200 baud if you have 4 bars of signal. With 2 bars, only about 10% of the speed remains. Iridium, however, is launching new satellites into orbit to deal with this limitation and over time, the Iridium network will become faster. Aviation weather like METAR, TAF and GFS model data can be downloaded in most cases in between 30 seconds and 2 minutes. A rain radar overlay will download in between 2-5 minutes.

Frequently Asked Questions

Related to the use of our Weather app in-flight and through the Iridium GO! or other satellite uplinks.

Can I make phone calls from my iPhone or iPad using the Iridium GO! and in combination with my Bluetooth enabled headset?

It works with the Bose A20 noise-cancelling headset with Bluetooth option and it might very well work with other Bluetooth-enabled headsets as well. Use the Iridium GO! app for making the phone call.

We have reports of pilots using the voice call feature and getting a clear signal, while others report getting a less than perfect voice connection.
Can your app download weather in the background?

Yes, it can. Our app is specifically designed to be able to continue downloading weather data over the Iridium satellite connection when used in combination with the Iridium GO! device. It will also after download close down the Iridium connection for you. When you move our app to the foreground, the weather data will be available to you.

 
Keep in mind that, in some cases, the download of weather data might be interrupted due to the less than perfect coverage at the moment of the Iridium satellite constellation. Some satellites are defect and Iridium is launching new satellites into orbit to fix this as well as to provide a faster network for data transmissions. If you move your app to the background, you might not notice the interrupt until you move the app from the background to the foreground to find out you still have to download the data once again.
Do I need an external antenna to operate the Iridium GO! in my aircraft?

It depends on the aircraft you are flying and the view the Iridium GO! built-in antenna has on the sky. If your windscreen area has room for the Iridium GO! device giving its antenna a good view of the sky, you might not have to use an external antenna. Otherwise, there are two external antenna options available where one is a suction cup antenna and the other an external roof antenna. Jet pilots might have to use an external antenna if the windshield is heated and might obstruct that free view of the sky.

Does it matter if I download the rain radar data for a whole continent or should I zoom in to only the area of my flight route?

In time to download the rain radar overlay over the Iridium connection, it doesn’t really matter that much. You could, for example, first download the rain radar for all of Europe to get an overview of what the weather is doing. Then you could zoom in to show only the area on the map you are interested in. If you then would download the rain radar data again, it will be a little bit more detailed.

Does the app support Split-Screen Multitasking on iOS?

Yes it does. If your iPad and iOS version supports it, you can run our app side by side next to your navigation software for both to display data on the screen at the same time.

How can I prevent other apps from downloading data in the background?

On your iPhone or iPad, go to Settings > General > Background App Refresh and turn it off. Now only the foreground app will be allowed to download data over a wifi, satellite or cellular network unless they have been specifically designed to be able to download data in the background. Our app can download weather data in the background, so that you can still look at the enroute chart while at the same time the latest weather is downloaded. In addition, we support split-screen multitasking on the iPad, so that you can display on one part of the screen one app such as the enroute chart with your route and on the other part of the screen our weather app. In addition, the Iridium GO! device will close down the Iridium data call if no activity has ben going on for 2 minutes such a downloading of weather data or making a voice call.

How do I download weather data for a specific airport in SAT mode?

In SAT mode, the airport data such as the METAR, TAF and weather forecasting data as presented in the Weather and Clouds tabs of the airport will not be dynamically downloaded as you scroll over the map or zoom in or out.

 
What you have to do in SAT mode is to click on the airport icon, then click on the ‘i’ in the airport popup and then press the refresh button which is found in the top right corner. That will then download session the airport weather through your 3G/4G/LTE connection or will initiate a data call to retrieve the airport weather through the Iridium GO!
 
In the SAT mode options submenu in the app, you will find an option to limit the download of airport data to only the METAR and TAF data. If you select that, you will get only the METAR and TAF and the information normally presented in the next two tabs (weather and clouds) will not be downloaded. This option provides for a faster download of the most important weather for an airport and it alternates over slow satellite networks such as through the Iridium GO!
 
If you at the same time also want to download the weather for one or more nearby alternates, then before pressing the refresh button to initiate the download, scroll down to the NEARBY STATIONS section and select the nearby stations for which you also want to download the weather in the same download session.
How does the offline map work?

When you are normally connected to a WiFi or 3G/4G/LTE network and scroll over the map, the map and airport weather is downloaded automatically and dynamically as you go. However, this dynamic downloading does not work if you are dependent on a slow and expensive satellite uplink.

 
For that reason, when you turn the app into SAT mode, we then rely on an offline worldwide map that is already embedded into the app and we only download airport weather as you specifically request for it to be downloaded.
 
You can download a next zoom level offline map from the same SAT mode menu. The option to download the next zoom level is offered if you go into the SAT mode submenu but don’t turn SAT mode on. Then, at the bottom, you can download a more detailed offline map. The download takes quite long up to 30 minutes but only has to be done once.
How is the lightning/strike data provided?

In the SAT mode options menu, you can activate the download of lightning data together with, for example, the download of rain radar data or for areas where rain radar is not available the augmented radar.

The lightning information is provided to you in near real-time. We buffer the last 5-7 minutes of lightning data on our server for direct delivery to you. The only delay is in the time needed to get the data to you over the Iridium satellite network and when downloaded together with other data such as the rain radar, it might be a few minutes old by the time it is displayed on your iPhone or iPad in the cockpit.
 
The yellow lightning spots you will see on the map will slowly become smaller over time and will disappear completely from your map display on the iPhone or iPad after 30 minutes. If you download new lightning data within that timeframe, the new yellow spots will be added to the map and will be displayed as large yellow spots, while the older yellow spots will still be there but become smaller and smaller before they disappear.
 
It can very well be, that you see lightning strikes at places where you see no rain radar echo at the same place and at the same time. Either the rain radar is not available for that area or the rain radar echo is from a lower altitude while the lightning strike is from higher up in the atmosphere.
 
It is best to combine all the information, so the information from the rain radar (where available) together with the lightning strike data. In case there is no rain radar available, such as in Africa, you can opt to only request the lightning data or to combine it with the augmented radar information. Downloading augmented radar data can take quite some time, so if you need to quickly see where you could expect the thunderstorm activity, then download only the lightning data.
 
The example, below of thunderstorm activity in West Africa shows you older (smaller) and more current lightning strikes (larger yellow spots) displayed together with augmented radar information.
 
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The lightning/strike data is available nearly worldwide. Areas around the poles, the north of Canada and Russia, the southern part of South America, Iceland and all of Greenland are not covered.
Is the rain radar data delayed?

Yes, it is delayed.

Most doppler radar stations have two modes: “clear air” mode and “precipitation” mode. In “clean air” mode, the volume scan takes about 10 minutes. Once the radar detects rain, it will switch over to “precipitation mode” and a volume scan will take about 5 minutes.

A volume scan consists of a series of 360-degree sweeps, each tilting a little higher than the last sweep.

It takes approximately one minute to get the data of the last volume scan delivered to our server and processed by us.

If your internet connection if fast, then you might be able to get an update of the radar overlay at an interval of 5-6 minutes. If you are on a slower satellite network, you would have to add 3-5 minutes to this for the radar overlay information to be transmitted to you over the Iridium satellite network. In worst case, the delay might add up to 10-15 minutes, so beware of the possible delay in the radar image.

What do the colours in the rain radar overlay represent?

In our colour palette, we base our transitions from green to yellow, and yellow to red, on meteorologist feedback, user studies, and the NWS correlations of dBZ to rain rates. We will transition from green to yellow at 35 dBZ, and transition from yellow to red at 55 dBZ.

Light drizzle we do not show on our rain radar overlay anymore, so as to not clutter the map with too much data that is not really of use.

Also, for the Mix and Snow conditions colour scale, light colours will indicate light precipitation and darker colours will indicate heavier precipitation. 

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What is Augmented Radar?

Augmented Radar is a mode that is best used in areas without full rain radar (doppler radar) coverage. Take, for example, the African continent. There is no doppler radar coverage here. The Augmented Radar takes, in this case, data from satellites on high altitude clouds and we present the most important build up areas on the map. It is called Augmented radar as we also will display and doppler radar echoes, so we combine doppler radar with satellite imagery to present you with information that can be of good use for you during your flight. Be aware that the satellite data is not real time and could be delayed quite a bit. So use the information to avoid the area and not for strategic weather penetration purposes. It is best to combine this data with lightning/strike data for a better and more complete image of what the weather is doing.

 
Be aware that downloading Augmented Radar imagery might take much longer than just a rain radar overlay over a slow Iridium uplink.
Where can I find the timestamp of the rain radar download?

There is a tiny timestamp downloaded with the rain radar data. It is displayed in the top left corner and just below the two buttons to centre the map or refresh the data (in SAT mode to download the rain radar data).

After you have downloaded the rain radar, you can zoom in on the time stamp.
 
The time stamp shows the moment the rain radar and/or satellite (augmented radar) overlay image was constructed, which might be delayed by several minutes by the time you see it on your tablet display due to having to download it through e.g. a relatively slow Iridium satellite network.
Your rain radar overlay does not look the same as that displayed in other solutions/apps. Why?

The difference in how rain radar is displayed on the map in a slightly other way from one app to the other has to do with the smoothening of the image. We had this difference in results analysed by professor Jeff Duda of the Center for Analysis and Prediction of Storms of the University of Oklahoma, Iowa State University as, of course, we have been comparing the different sources where to get weather radar from (the Dutch KNMI, MeteoGroup, DWD, Wunderground, etc.) and found they all (not only DWD versus Wunderground) show differences.

Here is his analysis when we discussed the differences in results with him.

“The differences you are seeing between images for the different apps is related to non-meteorological processes each app is using to display the data. I can tell the apps are using different color tables (i.e., which values of reflectivity correspond to dark green, yellow, orange etc.). It is also likely there is some post-processing occurring after the radar data have been measured and calculated. Some apps perform an extra smoothing to make the raw data more pleasing to the eye. Raw radar data can be very noisy and difficult for un-trained people to read. Smoothing averages out much of that noise and makes the larger-scale picture more clear. There may also be some degree of spatial interpolation to transfer the raw data from its native grid (plan-position indicators on conical surfaces) to the Cartesian grid most likely being displayed on the apps. This requires both horizontal and vertical interpolation, and the scheme used, as well as the final destination grid on which the data are plotted, can impact the final appearance of the data as well.

It is highly unlikely that different radar sites are being used to generate the data you’re seeing. I know Europe has a pretty large radar network. For weather purposes, they probably do share, so you are probably seeing data from the same root sources, just manipulated in post processing as I detailed above.”

We have taken the approach that light drizzle is not a serious weather hazard and threat to aviation. So, we do now show very light drizzle. When it starts to really rain, we will show the data. In some cases, light rain might not even limit visibility for VFR flights below the cloud ceiling or you might not even notice it on your windshield.

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