How A Laser Could Help Planes Avoid Turbulence

A system currently being tested on European flights uses a short-wave ultraviolet laser to detect air density fluctuations that could signal a pocket of turbulence ahead.

What's the Latest Development?

Pilots of a specially-equipped Cessna Citation are getting advance warnings about clear-air turbulence (CAT) while flying over Europe, thanks to a system that uses technology developed by researchers at the German Aerospace Center (DLR). The Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) instrument emits a short-wave ultraviolet laser, and the reflected signal it receives from oxygen and nitrogen molecules in the air allows it to locate fluctuations in density -- a common occurrence when two bodies of air moving at different speeds collide -- and give a warning. Tests will continue until the end of the month, at which time researchers will analyze the data produced in order to gauge the system's effectiveness and learn about the conditions that presage CAT.

What's the Big Idea?

Injuries and aircraft damage resulting from turbulence cost airlines hundreds of millions of dollars annually. CAT is considered the most dangerous type because, as its name suggests, it's invisible and can appear even when there are no clouds present. Worse, experts predict that incidences of CAT will become more frequent as the effects of climate change continue to impact the planet. 

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