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“Remote hands” allow upgrades to stay on schedule

An aerial view of fixed based weather systems and a portable Doppler radar system at the Weather Engineering Facility at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass. A team at Hanscom recently worked innovatively with the 46th Test Squadron, Eglin AFB, Fla., to become “remote hands” using the WEF to ensure testing necessary to keep fixed based weather systems operational would continue, despite the ongoing global pandemic. (U.S. Air Force photo by Steve O’Neil)

An aerial view of fixed based weather systems and a portable Doppler radar system at the Weather Engineering Facility at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass. A team at Hanscom recently worked innovatively with the 46th Test Squadron, Eglin AFB, Fla., to become “remote hands” using the WEF to ensure testing necessary to keep fixed based weather systems operational would continue, despite the ongoing global pandemic. (U.S. Air Force photo by Steve O’Neil)

HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. – Weather is a critical component in many Air Force operations. A team here worked collaboratively and innovatively with the 46th Test Squadron, Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, to ensure testing necessary to keep weather systems operational would continue, despite the ongoing global pandemic.

The Weather Systems Branch here manages all weather detection systems that automatically collect sensed weather elements and formulate aviation surface weather reports at small and large airfields as well as heliports. This particular project was to ensure maintenance laptops for three fixed base weather systems could be upgraded successfully. All three systems have sensors that provide key weather elements such as present visibility, wind speed, wind direction and ice accretion.

“Airfield weather technicians utilize their maintenance equipment to diagnose issues with the systems and we are upgrading them to a standard configuration that will improve that process, allowing the technicians to keep the systems in the field mission-capable,” said 2nd Lt. Alec O’Connor, Weather Engineering Facility engineer. “Due to the ongoing pandemic, the test personnel were not able to travel to Hanscom as they normally would, so we figured out a way to work virtually and collaboratively.”

All three systems are part of Hanscom’s Weather Engineering Facility, which is supported by the Hanscom Collaboration and Innovation Center. O’Connor said by “thinking outside the box” and connecting the maintenance laptop to the systems at the WEF, the team at Hanscom was able to share screens and video teleconference with test personnel at Eglin. The Hanscom team used tools such as Defense Collaboration Services and Microsoft Teams via the Defense Department’s Commercial Virtual Remote on personal devices with camera access to accomplish all this.

“We were able to share not just the maintenance laptop screen, but all the peripherals as well,” said O’Connor. “We were also able to record the testing, showing everyone how we set up and what we did.”

“This was our first attempt to test observing systems remotely by using other people as ‘remote hands’ using collaboration tools provided by the Air Force,” said Tom Cardinal, test engineer for the 46th Test Squadron. “While not ideal, we were able to complete the testing under social distancing and travel restrictions, verifying the functionality of the system.”

The initial idea for a remote-testing contingency plan started in early March as travel restrictions resulting from the global pandemic were becoming wide-spread. Following extensive coordination between both the Hanscom and Eglin participants, in April, the teams decided to go with the “remote hands” plan. The testing plan was ready in May, and the teams were able to test each function provided on each system, one system per day over the course of three days.

Doug Hahn, WEF engineer, emphasized the importance of getting the testing done.

“With the previous laptops, you needed a separate one for each system, as each was running different software. They were also quickly becoming obsolete. Now, with a common operating system and commercial-off-the-shelf software, we are providing the technicians an advantage they don’t have right now.”

With this testing completed, the team is getting ready for further verification efforts and operational testing, said O’Connor. He said completing the testing this way allowed them to stay on schedule for initial fielding of the upgrades starting this summer.

“By keeping the pre-COVID schedule, using the innovative testing plan at the Weather Engineering Facility at Hanscom, it allows us to keep with our larger fielding schedule that encompasses locations across the globe,” said Jeff Green, program manager for Fixed Based Weather Systems.

“We’re not trying to take over the jobs of the test community but are trying to be partners rather than just observers for testing,” said Hahn. “This teaming allows us to move forward.”

In addition to keeping the program on track, Green emphasized safety.

“Our approach to this testing, as well as with other program-related events, is to continue to be innovative and strategic during these COVID constraints but always keeping the safety of all members of the Air Force family, not only locally, but everywhere, front and center.”