With changing weather conditions globally, advances in software technology and the increasing availability of communications bandwidth are enabling ever more accurate aviation weather forecasting, based on real-time data.
Reliable information about weather conditions is arguably the single most critical component of the flight-planning process.
But, while ever more accurate aviation weather 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 50per cent. 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.”
Among airlines that have invested in the weather forecasting technology is JetBlue, which operates around 1,000 flights a day across North America, the Caribbean and Latin America. It has been using HyperCast Aviation since June 2017 at its Boston Logan Airport Operations Centre.
From the outset, the operations team saw data that had previously not been visible via other weather systems, says the airline.
JetBlue also receives meteorology consulting services, including email forecasts before big events, and emails or text message alerts when weather conditions cross a certain threshold.
The airline subsequently rolled out the system across its ten major operational bases.
“I’ve personally witnessed ClimaCell pick up ground- level weather systems that no one else could observe,” says Ian Deason, senior vice president of Customer Experience at JetBlue.
“Since I’ve put the ClimaCell tool in the hands of our managers, I get non-stop requests from leaders who want access, from ops managers, de-icing leaders, to ground operations duty managers.”
Another important player is Honeywell Aerospace, whose GoDirect Flight Bag Pro is a global flight planning iPad app, allowing flight crews to create and file flight plans, calculate and compare aircraft cruise modes for optimal performance, and access up-to-the-minute weather updates and airspace information.
The company’s Weather Information Service (WIS) assists the flight crew in making strategic, inflight decisions by providing up-to-date weather data along the intended route.
GoDirect Weather combines Flight Bag Pro and WIS to provide updated information about turbulence, icing, and storm activity on the flight path. Pilots can see weather observations of actual activity, as well as forecasts, to help them make better decisions about their flight path.
Explains Julie Vasquez, senior product marketing manager: “Flight plans are typically created several hours before take off. Weather conditions may change in the meantime, but pilots still need to ensure the safety of their passengers.
“With our app, they can make decisions about whether to route around a storm, or fly more directly on a shorter route, rather than diverting if a storm has cleared. They can also request to change flight levels to avoid turbulence.
“Pilots can get weather updates on the ground prior to take-off, or in the air, depending on their level of connectivity. The app can be particularly helpful in situations where sudden storm activity has come up, so pilots can prevent lightning strikes and keep passengers safe from unexpected turbulence.”
Honeywell is currently exploring ways of further integrating the app with its other meteorology products and Vasquez anticipates ever increasing interest across the range of improved forecasting technologies.
“Pilots are increasingly requesting weather for their EFBs [electronic flight bags] because they know it will make the flights safer and more efficient. Flight operations groups see the benefits weather applications can have on operational efficiency by enabling better en route decisions.”
The field is not just the preserve of US-based technology.
Swiss-based SITAOnair, a subsidiary of airline-owned SITA, collaborated with the French software engineering company GTD to create the eWAS turbulence and weather forecasting tool, which provides real-time weather and turbulence forecasts and nowcasts for all the phases of the flight, updating directly to the tablet-based EFB.
The company says that more than 20,000 pilots are now using the tablet-based app, which draws from both forecasts and satellite-based observation data.
The cloud-hosted product can be integrated with all leading flight planning vendors, is fully scalable and requires almost no new airline infrastructure. It is available for either iOS or Windows.
“Data is transmitted using highly efficient ompression, allowing eWAS to be easily updated over Wi-Fi, 3G or 4G on the ground, and over either a cabin or cockpit broadband link in the air,” says the company.
“With multi-source weather information and accurate, real-time weather reports focused on key dynamic situations, including turbulence, thunderstorms and lightning, pilots are better prepared for their flights, while passengers can be assured of the most efficient and comfortable service.”
The importance of all these weather tools is underscored by the growing body of data supporting the view that the number of extreme weather events affecting airlines can only increase.
There is now powerful evidence that climate change, and specifically global warming, is leading to an increased frequency of extreme weather events, including more severe storms caused by wider temperature differentials and increased convection – as well as more turbulence as a consequence of this and other factors.
Earlier this year, researchers at Reading University in the UK predicted a threefold increase in turbulence by 2050 – and with it a threefold increase in the number in-flight injuries to passengers.
Advances in micro-forecasting and the ability to share data quickly via cloud technology will be central to aviation’s efforts to keep one step ahead of such climate change impacts.
Visit climacell.co for more information.