Boeing equipped its long-range 777 with a laser to discover turbulence before coming in contact with it. If the laser proves efficient, the plane, crew, and any passengers on board will be saved from a rough ride.
In-flight turbulence is problematic in a few ways, one being that it disrupts those on the flight by tossing drinks and luggage around. In extreme cases, it causes severe damage to the plane itself. Reported cases involving this level of turbulence include a crash in 1966 and a few others where wind ripped the engine from the pylon (such occurrences are rare).
Further, turbulence can injure those on board. Ten people were hospitalized after intense and unexpected turbulence on a flight from Athens, Greece to Philadelphia earlier this year. The FAA reports 44 people were injured by turbulence in 2016. People also get extremely nervous when experiencing turbulence, even though the average plane only shifts 10 to 20 feet in height when incurring powerful wind. It also costs airlines $100 million a year in flight delays.
At times, the crew cannot adequately prepare for the turbulence and cannot execute necessary safety requirements.
Boeing and JAXA may have a solution.
Boeing teamed up with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to design a program to combat turbulence.
The pair plans to flight-test Long-range Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) technology to help commercial pilots better detect turbulence-causing weather.
Such a system would allow turbulence to be spotted more than a minute before the aircraft meets it. Although this may not seem like a long time to us, it is. It gives the crew the opportunity to secure the cabin, notify passengers, and fasten themselves into their seats.
Before more advanced technology came into the aviation world, a pilot would receive a weather briefing early in the day and that would be the most current information available. They would also follow general precautions around specific weather systems. Now, tablets and electronic flight bags allow them to access real-time weather conditions and updates from other planes.
LIDAR software projects a laser ahead of the aircraft and an optical machine tracks any light reflected back by dust particles along that laser-projected path.
At that point, the LIDAR considers aircraft velocity and its relationship to both the movement and the velocity of the particles from various distances. Fast-moving air pockets in concentrated areas indicate the presence of turbulence. Pilots and flight crews then receive an alert through audible and visual means.
Whether knowing about the turbulence results in avoiding it altogether or not, the alerts are useful. A one-minute warning can give the crew enough time to get in their seats and buckle up, plus telling passengers to do the same.
Scientists previously utilized LIDAR for research including United States Geological Survey terrain scans and in self-driving car technology.
Boeing’s ecoDemonstrator flight-test research program will power the next phase.
Facilitators established the program in 2012 and have utilized it for a series of tests to enhance safety and environmental performance through aviation technology. Test flights are taken with the goal of reducing emissions and noise while improving efficiency.
NASA also used Boeing’s ecoDemonstrator 757 planes in 2015 to test ways to reduce fuel consumption and emission. They worked to prove this could be accomplished if the plane’s vertical tail was smaller. A reduced size and weight would allow the tail to create less drag, thus using less fuel.
Boeing-JAXA’s LIDAR testing begins early next year.
Hopefully, LIDAR will guide all commercial flights soon!