New Weather Tech Can Save Lives

Despite Hurricane Irma bearing down on the people of Puerto Rico in early September, a Delta Airlines jet braved the wind and rain to make a flight from New York to Puerto Rico and back to New York. Air traffic controllers saw a gap in the outer band of the storm that the plane could pass through and gave Delta the green light to fly. The flight made headlines around the world. But flights like that could soon become commonplace, thanks to next-generation weather technology.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, about 56 percent of National Airspace System delays and cancellations are due to adverse weather, costing the airline industry about $6.7 billion per year.

Things are going to get better soon for all airlines when facing these kinds of flight weather decisions – a lot better.

A new system called NextGen Weather Processor is going live in 2019. This version, part of Work Package One, brings a single, high-resolution picture to the airlines through the consolidation of four legacy weather systems.

The system is being developed by Raytheon for the FAA and uses algorithms from a who’s who of research giants – MIT Lincoln Laboratory, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

NWP will provide weather product rates of 25 seconds or fewer and aviation-specific weather predictions that are out to eight hours, compared with predictions that are more than 10 minutes old.

Work Package One creates a common platform across all the different weather systems that work with the FAA. It’s going to be a seamless transition. In Work Package Two, we’ll integrate that system with the traffic flow management systems, and it will be very efficient because you are going to have the weather systems integrated with the other systems.

The first upgrade includes two central facilities; 34 terminal radar approach facilities; air route traffic control center facilities; three center-radar approach control facilities; the Air Traffic Control System Command Center and numerous air traffic control towers.

Delta received some of the data it needed for its flight because Puerto Rico has Terminal Doppler Weather Radar, a legacy weather system with good weather data.

Delta was able to get a high sense of confidence that the outer band gap was going to last long enough to get its flight in and out. But even on that Delta flight, there were points where weather information was limited. During the hurricane season, there is a lot of ambiguity in terms of what the weather is like in the Atlantic and Caribbean regions.

Due to funding restrictions, Work Package Two is not scheduled to begin development until 2021; however, capabilities like the MIT Lincoln Laboratory-developed Offshore Precipitation Capability are available today. This will supply air traffic controllers with weather information, so they can safely reroute aircraft around storms – even when there are no radar coverage data.

The OPC generates radar-like depictions of precipitation intensity and storm height in offshore regions where radar coverage is incomplete or unavailable.

OPC creates its weather picture by merging information from various available non-radar data sources – lightning, satellite and outputs from weather prediction models. Results from the OPC are merged seamlessly with radar-based systems to create weather data that extend into offshore and oceanic regions governed by U.S. ATC.

The OPC is so innovative that it was a winner of a 2016 R&D 100 award from R&D magazine.

Getting NWP all up and running will save the airlines time and money and get flights safely landed. And once we get OPC installed, we know the future will be better for more than just that one Delta plane.

Derek Watulak is the NextGen Weather Processor program manager at Raytheon.

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