What is the Kp-index? Is there a risk for drone pilots flying UAV?

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What is the Kp-index? Is there a risk for drone pilots flying UAV?

In this video I try to answer the question, “What is the Kp-index” and I’ll discuss what risks, if any, it might pose to operators of UAV.

Some say that a high Kp-index reading is a risk to UAV flying while others say the risks are negligible and therefore it can be safely ignored.

So if you’re a drone pilot and you would like to gain an appreciation of what this measurement means for your planned flights then this video is for you.

What follows is my understanding of the Kp-index so if you notice any errors or omissions feel free to correct me by posting a comment below.

If you’ve flown drones during a high Kp-index reading and noticed even the slightest difference in GPS accuracy then please post a comment too.

Drones use GPS to calculate their position above the Earth. It’s what makes them so easy to fly and it’s the GPS tracking that enables many of the features that make UAV both useful to commercial operators and fun to fly for amateurs.

For example, within the DJI Phantom range it’s GPS programming that powers the Failsafe, Home Lock, and Ground Station features.

That’s all well and good but what are the risks of losing satellite connection?

One of the external forces that can reduce the satellite signal strength and cause a string of mishaps that might lead to the dreaded flyaway is a geomagnetic storm and it’s this aspect of space weather that is measured using the Kp-index.

The Kp-index is a measurement of disturbances within the Earth’s magnetic field. It represents these disturbances on a scale of zero to nine.

A reading of 1 to 4 confirms calm conditions, whereas 5 to 9 denotes a magnetic storm of increasing degrees of intensity.

The readings are displayed in three hour intervals, usually as a graph in green, yellow, and red.

The measurements of disturbances are collected by magnetometers at various locations around the globe and recorded into their respective K-index.

The global Kp-index is a curation of all this data based on the averages from each recording station’s K-index.

The disturbances in the field are caused by solar flares, so increased solar activity poses a risk to any GPS equipment.

When the index is in the green area (0-3 on the scale) there’s a good chance of strong satellite lock. When it goes over 3 and stronger then there is a risk of disruption to satellite connectivity. Anything above 5 indicates a magnetic storm of increasing strength.

So the theory goes that if your drone has locked on to 12 satellites but a solar storm causes disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field you may lose the connection to one or more.

The accuracy of the GPS may be affected too, but again, some say this is too small a risk to worry about.

Judging by the comments on forums it seems many believe it’s not worth any concern. However, latitude of the drone flight and the type of drone itself may be significant.

Continued in the video…

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6 Comments

  1. Ship Therapy on December 24, 2020 at 10:30 pm

    Very interesting Ben, thanks for sharing. 🇦🇺

  2. Ben Lovegrove on December 24, 2020 at 10:39 pm

    As a drone pilot, does a high Kp-index reading worry you? Have you flown during high readings and if so, have you experienced any degradation in GPS signal or any loss of satellite lock?

  3. Keith Tweedie on December 24, 2020 at 10:47 pm

    This is a question on Transport Canada advanced exam, I got the question wrong, if it comes up again I will know. Well Done

  4. Gary Ha on December 24, 2020 at 11:01 pm

    Where can Kp-index data be downloaded?

  5. James Baylee on December 24, 2020 at 11:04 pm

    Flying with a KP INDEX OF 4 today. First flight was good. Second flight in new location (same suburb), upon launch (30m up) drone drifted about 1 m to the side. 10 mins into the flight the drone accelerated sideways without my control (about 100m @ 10-60kph) for 9 seconds.

    Drone came up with several errors relating to IMU & sensors.

    I landed and recalibrated drone ASAP and logged call with DJI.

    Not flying at this level or higher again.

  6. Ben Lovegrove on December 24, 2020 at 11:10 pm

    Judging by these responses from this video in Facebook groups it seems the reactions are mixed:

    "Been flying for about 3 years and not looked at it once."

    "I checked it once or twice when I first got my P4P… I haven’t checked it in well over a year. I find there’s far more interference from other more local ground based structures than KP."

    "Depends on what your attitude to risk is. I think its always worth a quick check before flight myself."

    "Depends on your aircraft. DJI seems less prone to KP issues, Yuneec aircraft don’t react well."

    "No matter what you fly its a sensible move to check the KP index before you fly. Regardless if it’s a DJI or not."

    "Flown a Phantom 4 around in KP7-9 without any issues."

    "Never experienced any issues with high Kp values."

    "We had navigation issues at 6. Couldn’t be duplicated or explained any other way. Pixhawk."

    "The Yuneec units seemed to be particularly susceptible."

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