AI in weather forecasting, prediction and communication
Plotting a safe course through bad weather and other hazards
Turbulence can turn a smooth journey into a bumpy ride for airlines and their customers. Not only can turbulence cause discomfort and injury for both passengers and flight crews; it also increases drag, which reduces flight speed and fuel efficiency, as well as causing vibrations that can damage the aircraft.
To increase passenger comfort and maximize efficiency, Southwest Airlines, one of America’s leading passenger airlines, wanted to help its pilots spot and avoid bad weather and other hazards.
Captain Will Ware, a pilot at Southwest Airlines, takes up the story: “Turbulence is a normal event for any flight, and it’s not dangerous in most cases—but it can be unsettling for passengers, and it makes life more difficult for flight crews. If you are trying to stow luggage or serve snacks and drinks to passengers, turbulence increases the risk of injury to both passengers and cabin crew.
“Safety and comfort are pilots’ top priorities, and we also have to think about keeping flights on schedule and flying as efficiently as possible. For all these reasons, we want to minimize the amount of time we spend flying through severely turbulent conditions or making large deviations around hazards.”
He continues, “The only way to effectively avoid turbulence is to track the position of weather systems and find an alternative path around the worst areas. Traditionally, flight dispatchers produce weather maps that pilots print out in black and white to review before a flight. However, because the weather is always changing, the information provided in the weather report can be out-of-date by takeoff, and doesn’t always correspond to the actual conditions experienced during a flight—especially if that flight is a long haul.
“As well as flight plans and weather reports, pilots also have weather radar systems in the cockpit. However, these onboard weather radar systems have a limited detection radius of approximately 140 nautical miles: by that point, it can be too late to make an efficient turn or find an alternative route. It’s much better to make a small turn 400 miles away and avoid the weather entirely.
“Pilots also receive notifications from ground control that warn of bad weather, but these are text-based reports that require interpretation by the Captain or First Officer. We wanted to find a better way to help pilots track and visualize global weather conditions from the cockpit in near real time and help ensure they are seeing the same weather picture that our dispatchers are seeing to enhance coordination.”