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Airlines use new technology to eliminate turbulence

Sunday - 4/27/2014, 3:45pm  ET

by Marissa Paiano, special to WTOP

WASHINGTON -- New technology that helps airline pilots avoid bumpy pockets of air could make your next flight safer and smoother.

There are around 750 turbulence-related incidents annually that result in injuries or damage, and each one can cost airlines as much as $167,000, Smithsonian magazine reports.

Some airlines are using new technology to try to avoid turbulence and reduce instances of injury or property damage.

Some American Airlines planes have sensors connected to a tracking system called Total Turbulence. The system measures the intensity of the turbulence around the plane and sends the data to a center that warns other planes who fly in the same path.

MultiScan ThreatTrack is a similar new weather radar system that American Airlines plans to use which informs pilots if a thunderstorm cell might cross paths with the plane. The system is also the first to differentiate between "severe" and "ride quality" turbulence, developer Rockwell Collins told Smithsonian.

Southwest Airlines, with the help of the National Weather Service, is experimenting with special water vapor sensors on its 737s that provide moisture readings at different altitudes.

These sensors have already proven to be a valuable investment. On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, a predicted ice storm was responsible for the cancellation of more than 400 flights at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. However, the sensors on Southwest planes determined that the storm was unlikely because of the lack of moisture in the air, so Southwest's flights were not cancelled -- and there was no bad weather.

German engineers at the DLR German Aerospace Centre are using ultraviolet lasers to identify changes in air density from the reflected signal from oxygen and nitrogen molecules. This will allow them to know if "Clear Air Turbulence" (CAT) is ahead.

CAT is a form of rough air that appears without warning. Scientists think gravity waves are responsible for causing this when air is forced up until it bumps against the stratosphere, creating ripples that can shake planes even at great distances away, according to Smithsonian.

Due to climate change, CAT might occur more frequently in the future according to a study published last year in the journal "Nature Climate Change."

Currently, the system can detect turbulence up to 9 miles ahead of a plane but scientists say they hope to increase that distance to 20 miles.

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