January 28, 2007
The first episode this year of the syndicated TV series Discoveries and Breakthroughs Inside Science (DBIS) looks at a new algorithm that has the potential to keep airline passengers' nerves calm and even save lives.
Developed by a mathematician, it's a warning system that creates a three-dimensional view of turbulence ahead and transmits it to airliner cockpits. The algorithm analyzes data gathered by Next Generation Doppler Radars and sends a real-time readout of turbulence every five minutes, covering an area up to one hundred miles out in front of an aircraft in flight.
Turbulence occurs when a flow of air experiences a sudden change in wind speed or direction. Many things can cause turbulence: rising warm air, thunderstorms, and strong winds blowing over mountains. Extreme turbulence is caused by severe thunderstorms, tornadoes, or hurricanes. Pilots usually try to change course to avoid know turbulence--if they have the time.
Mathematician-developer John Williams (National Center for Atmospheric Research) said that This is really the first time pilots had real time showing turbulence information showing potential clouds and storms in front of the aircraft." His years of of research, he said, has led to a "product that is actually making a difference.
United Airlines captain Joe Burns concurred. He said that Having the ability to see where the smooth air is, whereas traditionally flying around a little then hunting around for smoother air to have that projected along the flight we can hopefully avoid the rough air all together."
The FAA estimates there are more than 1,000 turbulence-related injuries every year. So far, Williams' detection system shows a greater than 80% accuracy rate in United's test phase.
"Detecting Turbulence" is just one of a wide range of mathematical, scientific, and technological topics covered in the DBIS series. The American Institute of Physics produces these science news programs, with the MAA as a contributing partner. The NSF-funded DBIS project delivers twelve 90-second segments each month for showing on local TV stations across the country.