NASA smoothes things that go bump in the air

Injuries to airline passengers could be dramatically reduced and flights made smoother with the use of radar software being developed at NASA.

Injuries to airline passengers could be dramatically reduced and flights made smoother with the use of radar software being developed at NASA.

Turbulence is the main cause of injuries to passengers and crew, as pilots can only guess where and when they might hit atmospherics. And turbulence near airports often forces aircraft to re-route, wasting time and fuel.

But NASA is developing technology that will allow aircraft to avoid these pockets of turbulence.

The technology is based on an x-band radar, operating from 5.2GHz to 10.9GHz frequencies, which can spot the motion of moisture in the air caused by atmospherics.

X-band radar is already used by airliners less than five years old to predict wind on landing. But the NASA team has developed software that improves the radar’s reflectivity capabilities, allowing it to detect reflections from rain droplets hardly visible to the naked eye, said NASA project manager Jim Watson. ‘When the system detects high rates of movement in the moisture ahead of the plane it will gauge the level of turbulence and send an appropriate message to the pilot’s radar display,’ he said.

‘The pilot would then have from 30 to 120 seconds to react and either fly round the problem or tell crew and passengers to strap in.’

The software improves the processing abilities of the x-band radar’s computer, enabling it to interpret the signals detected much more effectively.

NASA has been testing the system on a Boeing 757, as part of its Airborne Research Integrated Experiments (ARIES) project, part of NASA’s Aviation Safety programme. This aims to reduce air accidents by 80 per cent in 10 years. The team expects the software to be used commercially within two years.

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