Airline Passengers, Relax: Turbulence Detectors Are on the Way

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The software takes into account how moisture is moving through the air—a measure of turbulence—as well as specifics about the airplane such as weight, speed, and angle of flight.

Since not all planes are created equal—a 747, for example, is much heavier than a Learjet—the same amount of turbulence will jostle different planes differently, Watson noted.

The hazard calculated by E-Turb is then presented to the pilot in an easy-to-read format.

"The pilot sees what is called a magenta display that essentially says, For this turbulence level you should get everybody in their seat, and for this higher level turbulence you should definitely get everybody in their seat, and you might want to try to avoid it," Watson said.

The system was tested for 18 months on a Delta Air Lines aircraft. The flight data collected during the test is currently under evaluation, and Watson's team plans to make recommendations this spring on whether the system should be deployed by other airlines.

(See National Geographic magazine's "The Future of Flying.")

Turbulence Reports

The second technology under development is called the Turbulence Auto Pilot Reporting System (TAPS).

This software kicks in when an aircraft's accelerometer, an instrument that measures acceleration, detects an encounter with turbulence. It immediately calculates the severity of the turbulence and reports that information to computers on the ground.

After the airplane lands, maintenance technicians can then use the information to determine if the aircraft warrants special inspection before it returns to the air.

Eventually engineers plan to rebroadcast the information to aircraft flying similar routes, so pilots will know where the turbulence lies, allowing them to take evasive action if necessary.

This is particularly useful in the 10 to 20 percent of turbulence events that occur in the absence of moisture and therefore evades radar detection, Watson said.

Currently TAPS is used on more than a hundred Delta aircraft. As of August 2, 2006, it had generated more than 76,000 turbulence reports, according to AeroTech Research, a Hampton, Virginia, firm working with NASA on the project

Tom Staigle is the chief technical pilot for Atlanta, Georgia-based Delta Air Lines. In a testimonial posted on AeroTech's Web site, he praises the potential of the combined turbulence technologies.

"Together with TAPS, the enhanced turbulence radar effort marks one of the most exciting developments in the struggle to deliver better quality turbulence hazard information to flight crews and potentially other aviation user groups," he said.

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