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Buckle up

With changing weather conditions globally, advances in software technology and the increasing availability of communications bandwidth are enabling ever more accurate weather forecasting, based on real-time data. Stan Abbott reports

Reliable information about weather conditions is arguably the single most critical component of the flight-planning process. But, while ever more accurate forecasting can paint an authentic picture of overall flying conditions, the devil is often in the – sometimes invisible – detail.

Turbulence, including clear-air turbulence, is the leading cause of injury in non-fatal airline accidents or incidents, and a recorded increase in severe weather suggests this is a problem that can only get worse. Indeed, it is estimated that turbulence already costs civil aviation $100 million annually in maintenance and efficiency impacts in the US alone.

Increased bandwidth availability provides the opportunity for weather data gathered by individual aircraft-based avionics systems to be shared, so as to provide the most up-to-the-minute information on changes in wind speed or direction, powerful convection, clear air turbulence or other hazards.

The idea of ‘crowdsourcing’ weather information by connecting data collected by individual aircraft promises a major leap forward, and several technology companies and meteorology specialists are striving to make such systems available, not just to ground-based operations departments but direct to the flight deck.

Among leading players is IBM’s The Weather Company, whose Total Turbulence is one of a suite of products designed to deliver timely and precise alerts on weather hazards direct to the flight deck.

The Weather Company claims the system is proven to reduce turbulence-related impacts and costs by up to 50%. It has patented its Turbulence Auto-PIREP System (TAPS), which uses a turbulence-detection algorithm.

Technicians use TAPS reports to determine whether to inspect aircraft after turbulence encounters, while meteorologists can access the data for enhanced forecasting, and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has used TAPS data in accident investigations.

Weather Company partners include Gogo Business Aviation, which has incorporated TAPS into its business aircraft communications server, drawing data from aircraft-based censors, which is then aggregated via cloud-based servers at various locations worldwide. The Weather Company accesses this information via an Application Programming Interface (API).

Delta Airlines is also at the cutting edge of exploiting this kind of data source, having launched an app developed by Basic Commerce and Industries Inc. Delta pilots are able to set threat index alerts from existing avionics sensors on its Boeing 737 and 767 fleets.

Delta claims the algorithm can even differentiate between turbulence impacts on different types of aircraft.

Among other companies jockeying for a slice of this new action, is Massachusetts-based Climacell, whose ambition is to become “the default micro weather platform for traditional industries like commercial aviation, as well as emerging technologies such as UAVs, or drones”.

Itak Zlotnik, Chief Customer Officer and co-founder of Climacell, explains: “ClimaCell’s Micro weather API offers micro weather data for historical, real-time, nowcast (zero to six hours), and forecast (six-plus hours).”

Data is available for both the US and other parts of the world and covers a wide range of parameters, including precipitation intensity and type, temperature, wind, cloud type, ceiling, base, and coverage – as well as humidity, barometric pressure, dewpoint, visibility, sunrise and sunset, and surface radiation. Key functions include Customisable Alerts and a visual Weather Map (Tiles) that can be overlaid on the developer’s map of choice.

ClimaCell’s HyperCast Aviation Dashboard is a visual software product, with a high definition weather map, featuring all of the weather measurement and forecasting capabilities of ClimaCell’s cross-industry HyperCast product, which is used in a variety of weather-critical settings, including major sports teams, construction companies, and ride-sharing companies, but boasts additional features designed specifically for airline and airport operations teams.

“HyperCast Aviation can track and predict micro weather that is low to the ground and in a specific location,” says Zlotnik. “While a typical radar can only sense precipitation above roughly 1,000 ft, ClimaCell technology senses weather from the ground up.”

The system’s principal use, therefore, is in the operations room, where it helps to inform decisions regarding departure and landing timing, de-icing, and personnel preparation.

“When there is a storm coming, our customers can know exactly how much lead time they have by-the-minute, as opposed to estimating in hourly blocks,” says Zlotnik. “Additionally, the low-altitude capabilities „ we have mean that we can catch very light or frozen precipitation that impacts on operations but is sometimes missed by other tools.

“Our lightning threat forecasting and its visual representation on the map is very powerful. The potential for a better passenger experience is also quite significant. When airlines know exactly what to expect from the weather – and exactly when to expect it – they can pass that information to their passengers for more transparency about delays, as well as avoiding unnecessary delays due to uncertainty around the elements.” >>


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