New Laser Technology Will Help Planes Avoid Danger in the Sky


Nothing is as frightening on a plane as turbulence. It is estimated that in early 2018, a Boeing 777 will fly with a laser coming out of its nose; the laser is part of a new system that Boeing hopes could detect rough turbulence.

Today, modern passenger aircraft can resist the bumpiest rides, but the flight can still be dangerous for the passengers inside. According to the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA), a total of 44 passengers were severely injured by turbulence in 2016. This doesn't include all the less important things, like spilled drinks, or throwing up.

Boeing believes that a long-range Light Detection and Ranging method (LIDAR) could be the answer. A LIDAR is a remote sensing device used to examine the surface of the earth for things like clear-air turbulence, which is a turbulence that hits without any visual warnings—like moving clouds. Stefan Bieniaski, the Boeing program’s lead investigator, said “We expect to be able to spot clear-air turbulence more than 60 seconds ahead of the aircraft, or about 10.9 miles, giving the crew enough time to secure the cabin and minimize the risk of injuries.”

The LIDAR is part of a new system developed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). JAXA has been collaborating with Boeing since 2010 to configure the system for use on commercial aircraft. The system projects a laser in a straight line in front of the aircraft while an optical sensor keeps track of the bits of light reflected by dust particles on the path of the beam. Software analyzes the speed of the aircraft compared to the speed and movement of particles at different distances. Big changes in the speed—like pockets of air moving faster than what’s around it—are signs of turbulence. When the system detects those elements, it will alert the flight crew through both audible and visual alerts integrated into the instrument panel.

There are ground-based systems that can detect turbulence near airports, but each of them is the size of a truck. Engineers have downsized a system so that it can fit into a commercial jet, without adding too much weight or too much power. Because the system is smaller, it can be tested through Boeing’s ecoDemonstrator program. About every 18 months, the company selects a number of developing technologies and installs them on an aircraft. The aircraft then flies twice daily for six weeks. The 2018 program will test 30 systems on the 777, which is a new cargo aircraft FedEx is leasing back to Boeing.

If all goes well and the LIDAR system proves successful, it could start spotting turbulence for many commercial airlines within a few years.

[Sources: Wired.com; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)]

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