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Real-time weather services in easy-to-understand graphical format are coming to pilots’ electronic flight bags (EFBs). Some services will work, to a limited degree, with traditional VHF radio communication, like aircraft communications addressing and reporting system (ACARS). But their real power will be using broadband links, which are coming to the cockpit as a consequence of broadband for passengers in the cabin.Some of the costs of unpredicted weather are passengers being bumped around by turbulence can tweet their displeasure to an airline’s potential fliers on social media. Also, incidents such as lightning strikes—actual or suspected—can ground aircraft for precautionary inspections.

Current tools for handling weather reduce these damages, but often through last-minute deviations that cost fuel and time. Better tools will minimize weather damage more efficiently.

Limited forecasts

Pilots are briefed on weather risks pre-flight by dispatchers. Paper or electronic files on EFBs show current and forecasted weather for the intended route, destination and alternative airports. Once in the air, weather radar looks ahead for trouble, and reports from other pilots may reveal local problems.

These methods are useful, but limited. Forecasts may go out of date shortly after takeoff, and a 10-hour flight will likely miss the latest update, issued every six to eight hours. Inflight radar typically looks about 120 nautical miles out but does not show convective turbulence until 80 nautical miles ahead and can miss clear-air turbulence altogether. Radar is also weak at detecting wet or frozen precipitation, for example ice crystals on top of thunderstorms.

Much better weather information will soon be available from a number of vendors.

Working with partner GTD, SITA’s ONAIR app for Apple iPads or Windows EFBs shows weather hazards across the globe and on each airline route. Hazards are displayed vertically and horizontally, so pilots can fly around thunderstorms or climb above clear-air turbulence, SITAONAIR innovation director Toby Tucker said. And problems are shown over the entire route, not just 120 nm. Forecasts are updated every six hours and ‘now-casts,’ or current weather observations, can be refreshed every five to 15 minutes.

This longer view complements onboard radar. As hazards get closer, pilots can still switch to radar. But unlike radar in some conditions, the SITA app peers beyond the wall of turbulence immediately ahead, so pilots do not just divert into another problem.

One version of the SITA tool, Plug, connects through Wi-Fi with the broadband link passengers use in the cabin, but on a different, more secure channel. “It uses the pipes [airlines] have already invested in,” Tucker said. SITA’s AIRCOM Connect can also compress weather data for legacy VHF transmission. But the broadband Plug offers more data with more frequent updates, and broadband works over oceans, where VHF is largely unavailable.

Seeing better data sooner enables pilots to make better decisions for the entire route. Instead of sudden, sharp turns or altitude changes, more gradual adjustments are possible, saving fuel and time.

SITA is testing its certified Plug broadband solution with an Asian carrier. It is trialing the AIRCOM Connect VHF version with a European airline and will be ready to offer it broadly in 2016. The company is working with best-in-class weather providers, including Schneider Electric, which produces a picture of turbulence called the Eddy Dissipation Rate. It takes into account the size of vulnerable aircraft.

The initial release of Honeywell’s Weather Information Service (WIS) is being tested by several airlines. Technical sales director Jason Wissink said the software-as-a-service WIS would be deployed in the first half of 2016 and then updated several times year. The current version uses cabin broadband connectivity, but on a different network than passengers use. This is feasible because regulators do not consider WIS a major safety app, whose availability is critical, and airline IT staff will ensure its security. Honeywell will also offer a VHF version in 2016.

The broadband version of WIS is best, and Wissink predicts all carriers will use broadband for weather data in five to 10 years. The VHF version is being offered because some fleets, especially short-haul narrowbodies, will not have broadband connectivity for a while.

WIS offers graphical weather layers that can be turned on or off on a terrain map. Weather observations can be animated so pilots can see directions of hazard movement and whether intensity is increasing or declining. Observations come from ground and other radar, satellite Cloud data, weather reports at airports and other pilots’ reports, for example on icing or turbulence. Forecasts of cloud tops, convection, winds, clear-air turbulence, icing and volcanic activity are also displayed graphically on Apple iOS and Windows EFBs.

Wissink stresses that graphical data is much easier to interpret and inflight updates of forecasts keep pilots much better informed than pre-flight predictions, which can become less accurate as the flight lengthens. “We enable pilots to make better decisions earlier. This is strategic, not tactical weather. You can deviate one or two degrees to avoid problems, versus turning 90 degrees at the last minute,” he said.

Honeywell also makes weather radar, and this leads to a possible expansion of WIS. The company wants to use radar observations from leading aircraft to inform following aircraft of local conditions. This method would be similar to the pilot reports used today, but much more detailed and reliable. Wissink calls it ‘crowd-sourcing’ of weather and hopes to introduce it in the second half of 2016.

Data fusing

Al Peterlin started his career instructing US Air Force pilots on weather hazards and is now COO of WxOps, Inc. The company is working with Hawaiian Airlines on WxOps' OpsTablet® software that fuses weather data sets into 4D overlays for real-time updates. The 4D images will show weather movements and changes. This data has been available to Hawaiian’s dispatchers. Now, using Inmarsat broadband, OpsTablet puts data in the same format for pilots during flights.

Generally, Peterlin said, “the more data the better.” The challenge has been simplifying and displaying multiple overlays without subjecting pilots to data overload. So OpsTablet mathematically re-projects differing data sets into one integrated display. “We use best-of-breed weather products, ground products and real-time aircraft products to create our own proprietary displays and models, especially in detecting clear-air turbulence.”

Peterlin expects his WxOps system to provide Hawaiian with real-time weather information by the end of 2015, after which the company will market it to other carriers. Peterlin stresses the new broadband connections will enable bi-directional communication, so pilots will get the latest data available on the ground, and ground staff can receive and pass on the latest weather data from pilots.

As part of its Lido suite for Windows and iOS EFBs, Lufthansa Systems (LSY) offers graphical overlays of weather forecasts and current conditions, product manager Ingo Ludwig said. These overlays are now done pre-flight and can get outdated. For a 14-hour long-haul flight, information on the destination may be as much as 15 hours old, and conditions can be “much different than expected,” Ludwig said.

Broadband connections will allow continuous updates of both current and forecast weather with the LSY tool. Lufthansa recently agreed to install Inmarsat broadband on its short-haul fleet, and Ludwig expects other airlines to follow.

The LSY tool uses open architecture so each airline can choose its own weather provider and ensure consistency in both the forecasts and their presentation. Airport weather, updated every 15 minutes by official sources such as DWD Deutscher Wetterdienst, will be made available in LSY applications.

Many advantages

Ludwig sees safety as the biggest gain, followed by more efficient adjustments to avoiding bad weather with earlier warnings. Overlays on charts will allow the pilots to concentrate on flying instead of “reading a lot of textual weather information and interpreting it,” Ludwig said. Passenger comfort will also be increased and, in the US, carriers may save money on insuring flight attendants against injuries from turbulence.

Rockwell Collins is also developing new weather information services. Information management VP Joel Otto said Rockwell is exploring concepts for optimizing broadband weather and has a trial in place with one airline. Otto predicts the new weather services will enable real-time collaboration among pilots, dispatchers and meteorologists. They will reduce workloads by standardizing weather formats and make high-resolution weather information easy to share.

Each airline’s choice for smarter handling of weather will reflect a number of considerations, but will likely be made as part of the general strategy for extending broadband from cabin to cockpit—an extension that will have even wider uses in the future.