A NASA developed technology that can automatically alert pilots of potentially dangerous turbulence will make its first evaluation flights on a commercial airliner.
The idea behind NASA’s Turbulence Prediction and Warning System (TPAWS) airborne radar is to give flight crews enough advance warning, so they can avoid turbulence or advise flight attendants and passengers to sit down and fasten their seatbelts to avoid injury.
Researchers at NASA’s Langley Research Centre (LaRC), Hampton, Virginia, developed TPAWS to detect turbulence associated with thunderstorms as part of the NASA Aviation Safety and Security Program. NASA teamed with Delta Air Lines, Atlanta; AeroTech Research, Hampton, Virginia; and Rockwell Collins, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for the in-service evaluation of a production-prototype airborne radar unit with turbulence hazard prediction capabilities.
Delta will install the TPAWS/Rockwell Collins radar unit on a Boeing 737-800 this summer. Delta flight crews will use and evaluate the technology during regularly scheduled flights in the US and South America. The prototype is expected to fly for six to nine months.
Researchers from NASA, the companies involved and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will evaluate interim and final results of the turbulence prediction radar system. If the evaluation is successful, the technology may be adopted for new and existing aircraft.
“The TPAWS technology is an enhanced turbulence detection radar system that detects atmospheric turbulence by measuring the motions of the moisture in the air,” said NASA’s TPAWS project manager Jim Watson. “It is a software signal processing upgrade to existing predictive Doppler wind shear systems that are already on airplanes,” he added.
“Delta Air Lines is always interested in evaluating new technologies that offer the potential for improved ride quality and safety for our customers and flight crews,” said Ira Pearl, Delta flight operations technical support director.
Researchers have already tested TPAWS on a NASA Boeing 757 research aircraft. The TPAWS equipped plane searched for turbulence activity around thunderstorms for eight weeks. The aircraft flew within a safe distance of storms, so researchers could experience the turbulence and compare the radar prediction to how the plane responded to the encounters.
After one severe patch of turbulence, a NASA research pilot said his confidence in the enhanced radar had “gone up dramatically,” since the plane’s weather radar did not show anything, while the same time the TPAWS display showed rough skies ahead.
Atmospheric turbulence encounters are the leading cause of injuries to passengers and flight crews in non-fatal airline accidents. FAA statistics show an average of 58 airline passengers are annually injured in US turbulence incidents.