There would hardly be an air traveller who hasn’t faced nasty turbulence at some point in their lives. And Boeing knows this all too well. So sometime next year, a Boeing 777 will take off from the company’s airfield near Seattle with a laser shooting out of its nose. It’s part of a new system that Boeing hopes could spot brutal turbulence that can damage aircraft and toss passengers around the cabin—and give crews enough time to hunker down before the going gets tough.The technology will be designed to measure weather conditions up to 11 miles ahead. It would be among 30 systems tested next year. The research will take place onboard a Boeing 777 freight aircraft owned by FedEx. The aircraft manufacturer believes that the new system will allow pilots to avoid a rapid change in wind speed and clear air turbulence, which can’t otherwise be spotted by visual clues such as clouds. While modern passenger aircraft can withstand even the bumpiest rides, turbulence remains dangerous for people inside the planes.
The move comes after a spate of severe injuries as a result of turbulence, which can cause planes to rise or fall rapidly without warning. This May, 27 people were injured on an Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Bangkok—some were left with concussion and broken bones. In June, 20 passengers were hurt on a China Eastern flight from Paris to Kunming in Yunnan province, with many injuries caused by baggage falling from overhead lockers. As per the Federal Aviation Administration of the United States, a national authority with powers to regulate all aspects of civil aviation, 44 people were severely injured by turbulence in 2016. And it’s not just the injuries. Passengers often have to encounter severe rocking and spilled drinks during turbulence. So the new technology intends to help planes avoid the worst effects of turbulence. An aircraft will be fitted with lasers that detect pockets of turbulence in the sky ahead, allowing pilots to take evasive action. When turbulence is at its most severe, it can stall an aircraft by pushing it below its minimum speed despite the engines being on full power. When this is about to happen, pilots receive an attention-getter called a ‘stick shaker’.
Boeing thinks a long-range ‘lidar’ could be the answer. Lidar, or Light Detection and Ranging, is a surveying method that measures the distance to a target by illuminating that target with a pulsed laser light, and measures the reflected pulses with a sensor. A lidar will be able to spot clear-air turbulence more than 60 seconds ahead of the aircraft, or about 17.5 km, giving the crew enough time to secure the cabin and minimise the risk of injuries. Clear-air turbulence is the kind that strikes without any visual warnings, like moving clouds. The concept, which they hope could be rolled out across all commercial carriers, comes from a collaboration with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and has huge potential for travellers.
The lidar is the centrepiece of the new system developed by JAXA. It projects a laser in a steady line ahead of the aircraft, while an optical sensor tracks the bits of light reflected back by dust particles along the path of the beam. The move is significant as it comes after researchers warned that turbulence strong enough to injure passengers and crew could become twice as common because of climate change. As per the University of Reading, rising carbon dioxide emissions are increasing the temperature difference between bands of air at cruising altitude. This strengthens the jet stream, the ribbon of strong winds which flows from west to east around the planet.
Even if the new technology doesn’t give pilots enough time to steer around the threat, a 60-second warning could be a major improvement over conventional methods of turbulence detection, which rely on reports from aircraft flying the same routes and general precautions around active weather systems. Current systems only help pilots avoid turbulent areas, but not predict when the air gets choppy from one instant to the next. But having a minute’s warning will allow passengers and crew to buckle up. As per Boeing, if the lidar system proves successful, it could start spotting turbulence for commercial airlines within a few years. And then flights would get a lot more smoother and you may not have to worry about spilling coffee over a bumpy ride.