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“Aeronautical Weather Data” • May 16, 2006

Another pet Meredith idea!!

Other than trying to figure out DNA’s, then next most difficult thing to do is predict the weather.  Basically if you want a more accurate forecast you need two things — a faster computer to run the simulation software — and more data.

Computer speed keeps going up but more data is a real problem — particularly over the oceans.  While it’s possible to deploy an array of weather stations on land, (at least in populous areas,) it’s much more difficult for the three quarters of the planet covered in water.

And even if you could get weather instruments everywhere, all that does is tell you the ground conditions and what you could really use is information about all the atmosphere.  Weather balloons are used to sample the upper conditions and aircraft are used in some cases, also, most notably as the Hurricane Hunters that fly into storms along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.

BUT — it seems that there might be an easy way to get a LOT of information about the atmosphere because commercial airliners and business aircraft fly through it around the clock.  The trick is how to tap into their experience.

Airliners and other aircraft don’t fly everywhere, but mostly fly specific routes.  It’d be better if they flew through a wider sample of air, but because air systems move typically west to east, they do experience a wide cross section of a front as it moves eastward.

Also, one of the biggest users of upper air data is aviation.  The winds aloft forecast is something that all pilots are very aware of.  And it would be extremely valuable to know exactly what the aircraft ahead of you by a few miles had just encountered.

There is a lot of data available from flight instruments that could tell a lot about the weather.  An altimeter uses air pressure to determine altitude — and if you correlate this with a GPS altitude fix, you can impute barometric pressure.  Similarly, by using measured airspeed and aircraft heading and correlating this with the ground speed and GPS track, you can calculate the winds aloft.  The vertical speed of the aircraft plus the type and therefore the mass of the aircraft could tell you the acceleration and a lot about wind shear.  Outside air temperature is measure directly.  Airborne radar and lighting strike indicators give you a lot of information about the weather not only on your track but at some distance to the side.

So the information is valuable, but how do you put it to use?  Aircraft use transponders which transmit a coded string of data that uniquely identifies the aircraft for the air traffic control system.  It also encodes the altitude to allow vertical separation to be maintained.  It doesn’t seem like a difficult engineering task to piggyback a little additional data about “weather” conditions upon this system.  Maybe you just periodically replace some of the altitude info with weather info?  Maybe you have a separate short range “transponder” that continuously broadcast position and “weather” to both ground stations and nearby aircraft?

The data is collected continuously and used for a wide variety of purposes.  If feeds additional information into the weather prediction computers.  Over time, it provides climatological data.  And it provides immediate information for other aircraft.  Trust me — when you are shooting an approach down to minimums and everything is bouncing about, you’d LOVE to know exactly what the folks a few miles or so ahead of you just encountered!!

And it’s certainly not an “invasion of privacy” by sending out the additional information because if you are in controlled airspace, you are already transmitting a unique code number for your aircraft and also the altitude.  Perhaps this would just add an additional packet of really useful weather information to the transponder’s data stream.

There’s no free lunch, so who pays for this system?  While a lot of people benefit, I think the airlines benefit enough to justify the cost of adding the system to their aircraft.  Not only would safety be enhanced, but knowing much more exactly the actual winds aloft should allow much more economical flight planning and fuel usage.  Fuel is a staggering cost for the air carriers.  I’ll bet it wouldn’t take much of a fuel savings to justify a weather reporting program.  And corporate aviation has the same concerns for fuel cost.  THE Boss would definitely add a bit more avionics to save a tiny percentage of fuel.  (And maybe he could give me a little raise from the savings!!  Woo-Hoo!!!)

Something to think about!  Hello, FAA?  NOAA?  Honeywell/Bendix/King?  Rockwell/Collins?  Air Carriers?  Anybody?



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Last Updated: May 2006

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