NASA to send weather info to pilots

NASA has selected two vendor teams to begin working on a new system to deliver advanced, real-time weather information to commercial airline pilots and operations centers.

Winning team leaders Honeywell Inc. and Boeing/McDonnell Douglas Corp. each will receive up to $2.4 million over the next 18 months to develop Aviation Weather Information (AWIN) systems to provide state-of-the-art graphical weather displays that pilots can use to view images of weather nationwide.

The development of the system is part of a five-year, $500 million NASA initiative to support President Clinton's goal of reducing the fatal aircraft accident rate by 80 percent in 10 years.

The General Accounting Office released a report last month that faulted the Federal Aviation Administration for not leading an effort to supply airlines, air traffic controllers and commercial and military pilots with up-to-date and consistent weather information.

Current Data Not Enough

Pilots have a myriad of weather data from sources such as textual data links and radio contact with air traffic controllers and airliners' operations centers, said Charles Scanlon, senior research engineer at NASA's Langley Research Center.

But cockpit crews do not have graphical data for their routes from takeoff to landing that shows weather patterns and situations, he said.

Pilots have had access to textual weather information only during flight planning, while they are still on the ground.

This textual information is presented in strings of data full of complex abbreviations and acronyms. "It makes rerouting hard," Scanlon said. "If you give pilot crews better information, they make better decisions— more economical and safer decisions."

Current systems also do not provide pilots with information about invisible weather problems, such as wind shear and air turbulence not associated with storms, said Keith Hughes, the program lead at Honeywell's Air Transport Systems division.

In addition to heightening the ability of pilots to track current weather systems, the new system may predict weather events based on developing conditions, Hughes said.

AWIN will collect weather information from a variety of sources— including satellite images, ground weather services and other aircraft— and process, distribute and display it in the cockpit in real time. Hughes likes to describe the system as an "Internet in the sky," with Honeywell's data centers acting as an Internet content provider, its routers providing telecommunications services and the cockpit displays acting as PCs. At the data centers, the weather will be gathered, stored, compressed and encrypted before being transmitted via a communications link.

"The object of this exercise...is to come up with a system that is commercially viable," Hughes said.

"We have to understand the cost to buy the equipment and the cost to run the equipment. It's always a trade-off; we're trying all sorts of technology to see which is best," he added.

NASA has set aside more than $8 million that will be matched by industry to fund AWIN projects over the next 18 months. In addition to Honeywell and Boeing/McDonnell Douglas, NavRadio Corp. will be awarded up to $1.2 million, and Arnav International Inc. will receive up to $400,000 for a general aviation weather information system.

Other teams led by Rockwell International Corp., Honeywell and NavRadio will split $1.6 million to develop specific components for AWIN.

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