Storm warning for aircraft

Researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research are developing a prototype system to provide aircraft with updates about severe storms and turbulence.


Researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research are developing a prototype system to provide aircraft with updates about severe storms and turbulence as they fly across remote ocean regions.


The system is designed to help guide pilots away from intense weather, such as the thunderstorms that Air France Flight 447 apparently encountered before crashing into the Atlantic Ocean on 1 June.


The NCAR system, under development with funding from NASA, combines satellite data and computer weather models with artificial intelligence software that can identify and predict rapidly evolving storms and other potential areas of turbulence.


The system is based on products that NCAR has developed to alert pilots and air traffic controllers about storms and turbulence over the continental US.


‘Pilots currently have little weather information as they fly over remote stretches of the ocean, which is where some of the worst turbulence encounters occur,’ said NCAR scientist John Williams. ‘Providing pilots with at least an approximate picture of developing storms could help guide them safely around areas of potentially severe turbulence.’


The component of the system that identifies major storms over the ocean is already available for aircraft use on an experimental basis.


The entire prototype system, which will identify areas of turbulence in clear air as well as within storms, is on track for testing next year. Pilots on selected transoceanic routes will receive real-time turbulence updates and then provide feedback on the system to NCAR. The researchers will adjust the system as needed.


When the system is finalised in about two years, it will provide pilots and ground-based controllers with text-based maps and graphical displays showing likely regions of turbulence and of storms.


In addition to NCAR, other organisations taking part in the research include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory, the Naval Research Laboratory, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.