Early next year, a Boeing 777 will take off from the company’s airfield near Seattle with a laser shooting out of its nose. It may sound like a novel way to avoid bird strikes, but this isn’t that kind of laser. Rather, it’s part of a new system that Boeing hopes could spot brutal turbulence that can damage aircraft and toss passengers around the cabin – and give crews enough time to hunker down before the going gets tough.
“We expect to be able to spot clear-air turbulence more than 60 seconds ahead of the aircraft, or about 17.5 kilometers (10.9 miles), giving the crew enough time to secure the cabin and minimize the risk of injuries,” Stefan Bieniawski, the Boeing program’s lead investigator, told Wired.
The laser, which was developed by Boeing in partnership with Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency, works by projecting a “steady line ahead of the aircraft,” Wired explained.
Software then analyzes the plane’s movement in relationship to the movement of particles reflected by the laser. Any significant changes that the laser detects will alert the crew that there is turbulence ahead, giving them the time they need to take their seats or divert the aircraft if necessary.
Convective turbulence, is caused by thunderstorms formed as the sun heats the land and warm, moist air rises and cools into clouds. When the clouds can't hold any more water, it rains, causing a downdraft of cold air and wind.
Mechanical turbulence, which happens when wind encounters tall obstructions, such as mountains, trees or buildings that disrupt its smooth flow.
Wake turbulence, when one aircraft flies through the "wake" of another aircraft, much like the wake of a boat on the water. This is usually only a problem near airports.
Clear-air turbulence, which typically occurs in the high atmosphere with variations of wind in jet streams – currents of air in the Earth's atmosphere caused by the planet's rotation and heating by the sun. This type of turbulence cannot be detected visually.