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A device the size of a cell phone could help make a sky full of flying cars, drones and planes safer

a man with gray hair and a salt and pepper beard wears a black polo shirt with a lanyard around his neck and holds a small black box
Ann Thompson
FlightProfiler employee and Ohio University Assistant Professor of Computer Science Chad Mourning holds LAWN, an atmospheric digital twin that can determine visibility.

As the skies become more crowded, a device developed by a Cincinnati-based company could eventually keep the people flying in them safer.

How? FlightProfiler's LAWN, the size of a cell phone, is designed to help pilots and air traffic controllers know how many miles of visibility there are. Right now, aircraft of any size — from the 777 down to a single-engine Cessna — are not equipped to get that kind of information in the cockpit.

Pilots currently receive weather data from ground-based crews, but it's not complete. NOAA satellites have visibility sensors that are blocked by clouds. Ground-based weather RADAR slants upwards and doesn't catch low altitude conditions. LAWN — or Low Altitude Weather Network — provides real-time weather data to fill in those gaps.

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The FAA wants LAWN inside cockpits and was asking questions last week at the National Advanced Air Mobility Industry Forum in Springfield. FlightProfiler President Ethan Krimins is testing LAWN in planes he's flying out of the Clermont County Airport and Springfield Beckley. It still needs FAA approval.

The Air Force and the Ohio Department of Transportation are using a bigger version of LAWN on the ground.

Flight Profiler

LAWN creates an atmospheric digital twin by taking the number and symbol data generated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Metrological infrastructure and recreating that in a visual format.

Essentially, it's a camera and a computer, according to FlightProfiler employee and Ohio University Assistant Professor of Computer Science Chad Mourning.

RELATED: Springfield now has land ready for flying car and drone manufacturing

"The camera takes a picture and the picture is passed through a neural network and that is a set of equations modeled after sort of how the human brain works," Mourning explains. "You train that network using a bunch of samples. If I have a picture that says you've got six miles of visibility, and this picture says you've got 10 miles of visibility. I have thousands of pictures. I can train this system when I get a new picture, it tells me how much visibility it’s got."

The DOT says lack of visibility is responsible for about a quarter of all plane crashes.

The U.S. Department of Transportation's Ryan Steinbach is one of the primary coordinators on the Advanced Air Mobility Interagency Working Group Congress told the DOT to put together so it could safely adopt and deploy advanced aircraft. Steinbach asked FlightProfiler questions in Springfield last week.

"Really, we're looking for solutions on a lot of things, but for this conversation, it was micro-weather detection and mitigation," says Steinbach.

How can it used for first responders on the ground?

Krimins says he started getting interest from first responders on the ground who didn't want to waste valuable time contacting a pilot if there wasn't enough visibility.

Ann Thompson

"The first responder gets to the scene of the accident. They're dealing with a very chaotic situation. They're also probably not a trained meteorologist so they're going to have difficulty telling what the visibility is," he explains. "And they then need to decide, do we put somebody who is injured in the ambulance or do we wait for the Medevac to arrive?"

Krimins says LAWN, at a cost of about $300, could provide first responders the visibility information to determine if a helicopter could fly and if not, get the patient to the hospital without wasting time.

Krimins credits now retired Union Township Clermont County Fire Chief Stan Deimling and Medevac pilot Matt Johnson for valuable input.

Ann Thompson has decades of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market and brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting.