Weather forecasters in the middle of the United States are making better local predictions for pilots and others thanks to an airborne sensor being tested by NASA’s Aviation Safety Program.

Researchers at NASA’s Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va., led the team that designed, built and equipped dozens of Mesaba Airlines aircraft with the Tropospheric Airborne Meteorological Data Report instrument. Mesaba is a Northwest Airlink affiliate, headquartered in Minneapolis. The airline mainly flies shorter commuter routes.

The instrument allows aircraft to automatically sense and report atmospheric conditions. Observations are sent by satellite to a ground data center that processes and distributes up-to-date weather information to forecasters and pilots.

“Initial research shows the airborne sensor makes a 10 to 20 percent improvement in forecast error in numerical models and that’s just with temperature,” said Taumi Daniels, NASA project leader. The sensor also measures humidity, pressure, winds, icing and turbulence with the help of location, time and altitude provided by built-in Global Positioning System technology.

Large airliners fly above most weather and collect limited atmospheric data. When equipped with the weather sensor, regional aircraft, which typically fly below 25,000 feet, can provide more information. The information the team collects can also benefit weather models and forecasts, because it increases the number of observations in the lower atmosphere. There are only 70 weather balloon sites in the continental United States that collect temperature, wind and moisture data from twice-daily atmospheric soundings. The experiment added 800 more daily atmospheric soundings.

“Meteorologists at the National Weather Service have found the Tropospheric Airborne Meteorological Data Report to be useful in forecasting severe thunderstorms, dense fog, precipitation types of winter storms and low-level wind shear,” said Richard Mamrosh, National Weather Service meteorologist in Green Bay, Wis. “In summertime its best use is in determining if and when thunderstorms might develop. In wintertime it really helps in determining whether a storm will bring sleet, freezing rain or snow,” he added.

Industry, meteorologists, researchers and scientists are part of the partnership analyzing data. The partners include: AirDat L.L.C., Morrisville, N.C.; Federal Aviation Administration and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Washington; National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colo.; Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory, Lexington, Mass.; Meteorological Service of Canada, Montreal; UK MET Office, London; and Meteorological Network of Europe, Toulouse, France.

The program is part of NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate. The focus of the program is on the way vehicles are designed, built, operated, and maintained. The program is developing principles, guidelines, concepts, tools, methods, and technologies to address four areas: aircraft aging and durability; integrated intelligent flight deck technologies; integrated vehicle health management; and integrated resilient aircraft control.

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