July 21, 2005 Most airline passengers and flight crews have one thing in common: they don't like turbulence. Researchers at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., and AeroTech Research (USA), Inc., Newport News, Va., have developed an automatic turbulence reporting system.
The Turbulence Auto-PIREP System (TAPS) is being tested on more than 80 Delta Airlines passenger jets. Researchers say TAPS technology improves aviation safety. When pilots know there's turbulence ahead, they can maneuver to avoid it or ensure passengers and flight attendants are seated and strapped in.
"TAPS automatically broadcasts turbulence encounter reports from aircraft and allows other planes and people on the ground to use this information," said NASA's Turbulence Prediction and Warning Systems project manager, Jim Watson. "Pilots describe turbulence encounters over their radios and by text reports called Pilot Reports (PIREPS). They tend to under-report when they encounter rough air, because they're busy trying to fly through or around it," he added.
"TAPS provides real-time turbulence information that has never been available," said Paul Robinson, President of AeroTech Research. "The beauty of TAPS is, it is only software and uses equipment already on the aircraft, making it inexpensive and easy to install."
Atmospheric turbulence is the leading cause of injuries to passengers and flight crews in non-fatal airline accidents. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) statistics show an average of 58 airline passengers are annually hurt in U.S. turbulence incidents. Ninety eight percent of those injuries happen because people don't have their seat belts fastened.
Turbulence encounters are hazardous, and they cost airlines money and time. The encounters cause injuries, flight re-routing, late arrivals, additional inspections and aircraft maintenance.
Delta Air Lines and ARINC, Annapolis, Md., have teamed with NASA and AeroTech Research to evaluate TAPS. Since August 2004, the TAPS software has been flying on more than 85 Delta Boeing 737-800, 767-300 and 767-400 aircraft.
TAPS' automatic, accurate and timely reporting of turbulence encounters is almost immediately displayed on computers on the ground and received in the cockpits of other aircraft. The system's processing of encounters takes into account how various aircraft respond to turbulence. TAPS allows pilots to see the reports for the area ahead of their aircraft; controllers to see reports relative to air traffic and airline personnel to evaluate the impact on their operations; all in real-time.
"From an airline standpoint, we see tremendous benefit from TAPS in identifying areas of turbulence," said Bill Watts, the turbulence program manager for Delta Air Lines. "In addition to its obvious safety benefits, the system may potentially identify areas of airspace that would otherwise be blocked from traffic because of the inadequate turbulence detection tools that we possess today. TAPS gives us some much needed hard data that can help us make better operational decisions."
The turbulence research was funded by the NASA Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate's Aviation Safety and Security Program in partnership with the FAA, aircraft manufacturers, airlines and the Department of Homeland Security.
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