Commercial, Embedded Avionics

American Monitors Turbulence to Improve Flight Operations

By Woodrow Bellamy III  | September 2, 2015
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[Avionics Magazine 09-02-2015] American Airlines is among several major international carriers currently improving safety and flight operational efficiency with automatically generated weather reports through the use of real-time turbulence detection technology. Now, both American and the creator of the technology, WSI Corp., are looking to expand the use of the technology to more aircraft around the world so that a larger number of airlines can have access to crowdsourced weather data and give their pilots the ability to avoid or reduce the impact of turbulence on their flight operations.
Total Turbulence on the iPad. Photo: WSI Corp.
According to the latest FAA report on turbulence-related injuries, in-flight turbulence is the leading cause of injuries to airline passengers and flight attendants in nonfatal accidents. In 2012, American Airlines started taking steps to address that reality on its aircraft and it is now seeing the benefits from adding WSI’s turbulence detection technology across its fleet of aircraft, which now automatically detect and report turbulence incidents to flight dispatchers and aviation meteorologists on the ground.
“What we have gone from is a world in which pilots reported turbulence verbally or via [Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System] ACARS messaging coming through either government circuits or sometimes directly back to the dispatcher,” Des Keany, manager of flight planning support for American Airlines, told Avionics Magazine. “Now we can detect the start, the trend, and the end because once the aircraft encounters turbulence it starts transmitting high-frequency messaging back to us every 30 seconds on the state of the atmosphere so we can see where it began and ended and we get the information in near real time.”
American Airlines, Alaska Air, United Airlines, and Dragon Air are using the solution called Total Turbulence. Rather than adding extra hardware or major software modifications to an aircraft’s configuration, WSI’s tool attaches extra code to the aircraft’s existing condition monitoring system to measure the G-Force of vertical accelerations. Once a medium level of turbulence is detected, the system starts recording vertical acceleration every 30 seconds to produce an actionable picture of where turbulence is, how its being encountered and what the flight crews of that aircraft and other airliners in the area can do to avoid it or reduce its impact on passengers and flight attendants.
“What Total Turbulence does is its uses a set of algorithms defined by an interface control document, and then we work with the avionics provider or the airline to code those algorithms onto the Aircraft Condition Monitoring System (ACMS),” Mark D. Miller, vice president and general manager of decision support for WSI Corp., told Avionics Magazine. “It is a very lightweight application that is running on the ACMS, which is connected to the 429 bus so it has access to the vertical accelerometer data, which is one of the key inputs. But it also has access to other information that we would use as part of that algorithm to determine whether that change in the aircraft is due to normal operations, a maneuver where its banking to take a turn, versus an actual turbulence event. We are basically accessing the sensors on the aircraft to discern what is a real turbulence event versus what is a normal maneuver.”
The data from the onboard sensors is transmitted via ACARS to WSI’s team of 35 aviation meteorologists at their 24/7 aviation weather center. The team continually monitors real-time observations of turbulence and other weather data that would be a strong indicator of turbulence. WSI then makes the information available both to airline dispatchers on the ground, as well as the flight crew during both the pre-check and airborne stages of flight operations. 
Brian Norris, Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) program manager for American Airlines, said it has proven to be a valuable tool for American’s pilots as well. 
“Right now, in our pre-flight, we have Wi-Fi at all the airports and hopefully soon we’ll have cellular to cover the holes. With the Wi-Fi connection on the ground we can pull up our flight plan through WSI and we can see the [Turbulence Auto PIREP System] TAPS report, the reports displayed on the screen in relationship to our route and that re-enforces the information that the dispatch team puts on our flight plan so we can take that picture and show it to our flight attendants,” said Norris. “It helps the flight attendants see what we’re talking about on our flight plan.”
Previously, American and the other carriers using Total Turbulence relied on text-based reports, whereas the WSI application helps visualize turbulence within a given airspace along an aircraft’s route structure. Any airline that subscribes to the WSI Total Turbulence network can access the turbulence reports, even if they do not have the software integrated into their aircraft fleet condition monitoring systems, Miller explained. 
“If you look at the network that we are building out, we work with our customers, our partner airlines who equip their aircraft with this technology. In exchange to that we get access to those observations [and] the airline gets access as well. We aggregate all of the observations we are getting now from four airlines, soon we have plans to add two other major airlines internationally. We are aggregating all that into one real-time turbulence data base so we are getting about 14,000 observations a day right now,” said Miller. 
American currently has Total Turbulence installed on its fleet of 737s, 757s and 767s, and Keany says they’re looking to expand it across more of its larger aircraft that fly internationally. The airline is also currently aiming to expand internationally and give pilots the ability to see the turbulence reports from other aircraft in real time with cockpit Internet connectivity.

“Our 757s and 767s crossing the Atlantic do send reports, but the 777s for the moment are not currently equipped,” said Keany. “Our Pacific routes cross extremely large areas of water that feature a lot of turbulence areas, especially the routes between the U.S. and Japan, so right now we’re relying on other airlines coming onboard … International expansion is the biggest driver and having real-time connectivity will also be a game changer. Once we get the real-time connectivity in the cockpit, the way the tool is used can be dramatically improved.” 

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