New system helps aircraft avoid turbulence

September 6, 2007
NTDA Uplink
In the cockpit, pilots receive a printout showing areas of turbulence along their flight path. Credit: (Images courtesy Research Applications Laboratory, NCAR)

A new turbulence detection system now being tested is successfully alerting pilots to patches of rough air as they fly through clouds. The system, designed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and tested by United Airlines on commercial flights, is designed to better protect passengers from injuries caused by turbulence while reducing flight delays and lowering aviation costs.

The new system uses a mathematical method developed by NCAR scientists, known as the NEXRAD Turbulence Detection Algorithm, or NTDA, to analyze data obtained from the National Weather Service's network of Next-Generation (NEXRAD) Doppler radars. The resulting real-time snapshot of turbulence can be transmitted to pilots in the cockpit and made available to airline meteorologists and dispatchers via a Web-based display.

The research is funded by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in partnership with the National Science Foundation, NCAR's primary sponsor.

"Pinpointing turbulence in clouds and thunderstorms is a major scientific challenge," says NCAR scientist John Williams. "Our goal is to use these radar measurements to create a three-dimensional mosaic showing turbulence across the country that can help pilots avoid hazardous areas, or at least give them enough warning to turn on the 'fasten seat belt' sign."

The NTDA is being tested until October by a group of United Airlines pilots who fly routes east of the Rockies. The pilots, who receive information in their cockpits about turbulence detected ahead, report that the system provides them with accurate information about turbulence that is not available from any other source.

"The messages I've received in the cockpit gave a very accurate picture of turbulence location and intensity," says Captain Rocky Stone, chief technical pilot for United Airlines. "The depiction of turbulence intensity provides an unprecedented and extremely valuable new tool for pilot situational awareness."

Depending on the results of this year's tests, the next step may be to expand the system to additional United aircraft or other airlines. Williams anticipates that, by 2011, the NTDA will provide input to a system over the contiguous United States that will update comprehensive turbulence "nowcasts" for pilots and air traffic managers every 15 minutes.

"We hope this will provide a significant boost to the aviation industry in terms of passenger comfort, safety, and reduced costs," Williams says.

New data from existing radars

Pilots in the past have lacked accurate measurements of turbulence that develops in clouds and thunderstorms, partly because turbulent areas may be small, evolve quickly, and occur outside the most intense parts of the storm. As a result, FAA guidelines suggest that planes avoid thunderstorms by at least 20 miles when possible, even though large sections of that area may contain relatively calm air.

The NTDA captures turbulence in storms by peering into clouds to analyze the distribution of winds. It reprocesses radar data to remove factors that can contaminate measurements, such as sunlight, nearby storms, or even swarms of insects flying near the radar dish. It also averages a series of measurements to improve the reliability of its turbulence estimates.

This year's tests build on smaller-scale tests with United Airlines in the summers of 2005 and 2006 that showed it was possible to successfully detect moderate-or-greater turbulence more than 80 percent of the time. NCAR scientists have refined the NTDA since then, and expect that this year's demonstration will show additional improvements to the system's accuracy.

Source: National Center for Atmospheric Research/University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

Explore further: The destructive effects of supercooled liquid water on airplane safety and climate models

Related Stories

Airlines get new tools to avoid turbulence

July 14, 2015

Airlines are using new software that transmits weather data from planes in the air to analysts on the ground, allowing pilots to avoid turbulence that can injure passengers and damage planes.

New airport system facilitates smoother take-offs and landings

September 19, 2012

For airline passengers who dread bumpy rides to mountainous destinations, help may be on the way. A new turbulence avoidance system has for the first time been approved for use at a U.S. airport and can be adapted for additional ...

Recommended for you

Samsung to disable Note 7 phones in recall effort

December 9, 2016

Samsung announced Friday it would disable its Galaxy Note 7 smartphones in the US market to force remaining owners to stop using the devices, which were recalled for safety reasons.

Swiss unveil stratospheric solar plane

December 7, 2016

Just months after two Swiss pilots completed a historic round-the-world trip in a Sun-powered plane, another Swiss adventurer on Wednesday unveiled a solar plane aimed at reaching the stratosphere.

Solar panels repay their energy 'debt': study

December 6, 2016

The climate-friendly electricity generated by solar panels in the past 40 years has all but cancelled out the polluting energy used to produce them, a study said Tuesday.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.