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Aircraft Weather Observation Tech Enters IOT, Crowdsourcing Era

For years, satellites and ground-based radar linked to aircraft signal captures and radar have provided the bulk of weather information for commercial aviation operations. Now, avionics manufacturers, internet service providers and more are looking to another source for weather, the “connected” or “linked” crowdsourced and cloudsourced weather.

The concept of crowdsourced, or cloudsourced, weather is evolving in commercial aviation. Avionics companies, in-flight connectivity providers, weather-forecasting software as a service and more are all optimizing the way swaths of airspace are digitally interrogated and monitored for the latest wind variations, convection changes, clear air turbulence and other airspace weather hazards that can significantly impact flight operations. Crowdsourcing weather is the process of turning existing aircraft weather radars into connected radars that downlink information about airspace conditions and continuously deliver updates as needed to subscribers of that information. While operators are already able to access weather information in a variety of different ways, such as iPad apps or hardwired aircraft weather radar, those sources are mainly based on ground-based radar.

Of course, business, commercial and military aviation operations have had access to weather forecasting in digital forms for years. But what’s changing is the amount of bandwidth becoming available, allowing software application providers and radar hardware manufacturers to create a more unified, rapidly updated and accurate picture of the airspace along a flight route so that an airline, business jet or military pilot and his or her organization can make the best and most optimal routing and rerouting decisions.

What’s most interesting is the different positions that aviation technology companies hold within different points of what Lisa Peterson, VP of marketing and digital strategy at Gogo, refers to as the aviation internet of things (IOT) value chain.

Right now, Gogo Business Aviation is involved in a partnership with IBM’s The Weather Company that generates real-time turbulence alerts for private jet flight departments. Under the partnership, Turbulence Auto-PIREP System, a turbulence-detection algorithm patented by The Weather Company, is integrated into Gogo’s business aircraft communications server.“We get some sensors on the plane telling us what’s happening with regards to turbulence,” explained Peterson. “That information goes into a smart gateway, which Gogo puts on the plane. That information to go to that gateway has to go through the Gogo network. It then goes through a cloud-based aggregation, at one of the cloud-based locations we have in several hangars across the globe. That information is then available to The Weather Channel through an API, and they write an API directly into us to access that information and run the algorithm.”

And Gogo’s in-flight connectivity is not being used just for business-jet operators either, as Delta Airlines is also taking advantage of the cabin-based Gogo Wi-Fi equipment featured on its aircraft. The international carrier launched an app developed by military engineering firm Basic Commerce and Industries Inc., using algorithms developed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research. The app allows Delta’s pilots to set threat index alerts from existing avionics sensors installed on more than 300 aircraft in Delta’s fleet.

According to Delta, the algorithms use a combination of aircraft vertical accelerometer data and atmospheric state data, including aircraft-specific behavioral data such as pitch, roll and wind speed to formulate app-based turbulence reports for pilots.

Delta even claims that the algorithm is capable of producing turbulence customized by aircraft type, for example distinguishing the difference between how turbulence impacts a Boeing 737 versus a much larger 777. The app is the end result of an FAA-led demonstration between 2013 and 2014 that validated the technology. Delta’s 2016 report on the app showed that its pilots were beta testing it and that it is installed on its 737s and 767s, with plans to expand it to 777s and A330s.

Honeywell is using this Convair 580 to flight test the new weather radar technology.Honeywell

Meanwhile on the business aviation side, Gogo’s Peterson says the partnership with The Weather Company is “just the tip of the iceberg.”

“You’re going to see us do things such as this with The Weather Company with a number of different companies both within aviation and most likely outside of aviation as we continue to solidify a position within the aviation internet of things,” says Peterson.

Crowdsourcing for Aircraft Weather Updates

Pilots and flight dispatchers are arguably the two most important end users of crowdsourced weather radar information and data sets. Crowdsourcing apps like Waze rely on user-generated reports from other users using Waze in areas that are along a driving route launched by someone using Waze behind those other drivers.

Aviation companies are looking to do the same thing in the air, by taking existing weather radar equipment and slightly modifying it to not only produce airspace weather information for the pilot controlling the aircraft it is connected to, but also to pilots and dispatchers of other aircraft that are going to be using that same airspace.

Schneider Electric, a European multinational corporation specializing in aviation observational weather technology among other capabilities, has a web-based File Transfer Protocol called 4D Flight Route Alerting, which holds a unique position within crowdsourcing weather. The technology produces in-flight alerts for pilots and flight dispatchers with information on altitude, position and time components to help aircraft avoid heavy patches of turbulence or areas of severe weather. Currently 5,500 business jets, commercial airplanes and helicopters are connected to it. John Thivierge, director of aviation weather services at Schneider Electric, says the company receives more than 120,000 flight plans daily to be evaluated for the most optimal route that will avoid turbulence and areas of convection.

Schneider holds positions within the aviation IOT value chain that serves many different customers, partners and stakeholders, including Rockwell Collins’ ARINC Direct Information Management Services (IMS) division and Airbus’ Navblue flight operations solutions division. The company is also talking with Microsoft to layer its solution into the Microsoft Azure cloud platform. Further, Sabre, an aviation SaaS and electronic flight bag software provider is integrating flight-route alerting into light Explorer, which is a flight tracking and aircraft situation display solution that incorporates multiple data feeds, dynamic weather overlays, situational alerts, detailed maps and forested weather into one situational view.

Thivierge says whether it’s an avionics company or an airline they’re working with; their software requires no hardware modification. Thivierge said the company’s first airline customer was Cathay Pacific in Hong Kong, which he said uses a system called Flight Messenger from SITA. It “allows them to receive their flight plans from their flight planning system, convert it to us, receive the alerts that we generate that then use Flight Messenger to send it to the dispatcher or send it straight up to the aircraft, so the pilot can see the alerts in real time as well,” he explains.

Honeywell’s IntuVue RDR-4000 3-D weather radar system is on many in-service airliners.Honeywell

Launched just more than a year ago, the software has rapidly expanded in usage across different segments of aviation, with Schneider’s aviation division experiencing its highest grossing revenue year in 2016, says Thivierge.

“We’re deploying our solution within the Microsoft Azure cloud, a cloud-based solution that allows us to have that geographical access to certain countries like China, for example, where they don’t allow any data outside the country,” says Thivierge.

Downlinking Aircraft Weather Radar Data

Two avionics companies leading the charge toward realizing the concept of crowdsourced weather are Honeywell Aerospace and Rockwell Collins. Currently, Honeywell is demonstrating the crowdsource weather-enabled version of its Weather Information Service app on its Boeing 757 airborne testbed. The capability, coined the “connected radar,” aggregates weather from Honeywell’s IntuVue RDR-4000 3-D weather radar system, which is featured on many in-service airliners and is also on the Gulfstream G650. The radar system is able to detect and predict lightning, hail, wind shear and turbulence using volumetric 3-D scanning and pulse-compression technologies.

“In countries like Mexico, there’s no ground-based weather, so if I want to look at the weather and plan for my trip, I can’t,” says Kiah Erlich, director of flight services at Honeywell Aerospace and also a pilot. “I can only look at grayscale satellite images and airport weather observations. So using that, pilots have a very limited view of what’s going on.”

To enable the downlink capability, in-service aircraft equipped with the RDR radar would need a software update, but would not require a major hardware modification. Honeywell is currently awaiting a supplemental type certificate on the new capability and is also working on completing the software update.

“All you need to enable this is an iPad, or Windows tablet, and a subscription to Honeywell’s WIS, or Go Direct EFB,” says Erlich. “Both apps will have connected radar and overlay on them.”

Honeywell’s biggest competitor, Rockwell Collins, is also working on establishing this concept of using its existing MultiScan weather radar systems to downlink weather radar data captured onboard the more than 10,000 in-service aircraft on which it is featured and making that available to other users.

Kevin Kronfeld, principal systems engineer at the Advanced Technology Center for Rockwell Collins, says that previously this capability has been limited by a lack of available broadband connectivity.

“Over the last five years there’s increasingly been a large pull for cabin connectivity that’s been the motivation for adding higher bandwidth broadband links to business jets and commercial airliners,” says Kronfeld. “Now that we have those links we can piggyback a lot of this information on that infrastructure.”

Challenges remain to be addressed, says Kronfeld, such as the cybersecurity risks associated with enabling such capability. Data access rights and addressing ownership of the weather radar data that is downlinked and shared are other issues as well.

“The main challenge is addressing the question of who owns the data and getting the airlines to say, ‘I’ll share my data so other folks can benefit from this as well,’” says Doug Webb, principal marketing manager for Air Transport Systems for Rockwell Collins. GCA