SmartSky aims to smooth out the impact of turbulence


SmartSky’s turbulence service SmoothSky aims to smooth out the damaging effects of turbulence for business jet passengers. Whether it is a disturbingly rough ride or higher fuel burn, turbulence adds costs and disruption to private jet flights. Ryan Stone, president of SmartSky Networks, explains how the company’s turbulence service can help.

Question (Q): Given most business jets are smaller than airliners, does turbulence have a greater impact on executive aircraft? 

Answer (A): Whether you are flying on a Citation M2 or a Boeing 747, there’s no doubt that turbulence is a well-known disturbance to any passenger, crew member or pilot. While all aircraft are specially designed to deal with its effects, the size of an aircraft does impact the extent to which turbulence is felt.

Similar to ocean waves, a two-foot wave has a lot more impact on a rowboat than it does to an aircraft carrier and the same can be said for the effect of turbulence on small and large aircraft. Fortunately, business jets typically have more options for avoiding turbulence and adjusting to it in flight. These options don’t always extend as easily to turboprops or smaller general aviation aircraft with non-pressurised cabins, but often the same avoidance tactics are available.

Modern business jets have great flexibility, with the capability to climb relatively quickly and fly at altitudes higher than commercial airliners. So, business jet pilots and dispatchers can make use of advanced notice of turbulence, helping them to plan flight routes and altitudes to avoid it. For example, business jets can change their route inflight if they are made aware of turbulence on their intended path.

These tactics are useful but require knowledge about where turbulence is both before and during a flight. A recent report published by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) demonstrated that turbulence is the most common factor in airline accidents – with 37.6% of accidents attributed to the event. Although business aviation may be able to avoid turbulence more easily than commercial airlines, it’s entirely dependent on the information pilots and dispatchers have at hand.

Q: Before SmartSky developed technology to mitigate the effects, how did aircraft deal with turbulence – simply ride it out?

A: The severity of turbulence depends on several different factors that affect how pilots approach an event. If turbulence occurs unexpectedly along a route, pilots can choose to ride it out, change heading or climb to a higher altitude. Changing course or altitude requires coordination with air traffic control, may delay the flight, or cause higher fuel burn. So, the earlier a pilot is made aware of turbulence along their path, the more time they have to pick the optimal way to deal with it.

Traditionally, pilots have relied on subjective pilot reports (PIREPS) to try to avoid turbulence and recently better turbulence prediction technologies are coming to market to help the flight planning process. But now, by making use of crowdsourced, real-time automated reports of actual turbulence encountered by others while inflight, pilots can validate the predictions and adjust their flight paths in real time when needed.

Q: How long did the tech take to develop and how is it retrofitted into an aircraft’s operational systems?

A: SmartSky’s turbulence services are a result of long-standing partnership with International Air Transport Association’s (IATA’s) Turbulence Aware Program. Working with IATA, we provide business aviation operators real-time reports of turbulence generated by the thousands of commercial airliners that fly every day. Equally important, the service also reports where aircraft have flown without turbulence. There’s even a small web application that pilots can use to visualise the turbulence data along their route, and if they have connectivity, the app stays up to date throughout the flight. All the pilot needs is an app-enabled mobile phone or tablet. The next steps we are working on with flight management system providers will make the turbulence data viewable in the cockpit through existing displays and messaging systems.

Q: What difference does it make? If I were flying in an aircraft without it and then jumped in one that did, how different would that feel?

A: Though we’ve achieved great things, it’s important to note that SmartSky’s turbulence service for business aviation doesn’t magically, nor literally, smooth the skies. Rather, we enable pilots, dispatchers, and service providers to access and display real-time turbulence data. Coupled with their existing weather and flight planning tools, operators can better predict and avoid turbulence, manage expectations and provide a smoother passenger experience.

As an advisory service, SmoothSky helps protect the safety of those onboard, increase the efficiency of business aviation flights and makes flying better. Whether it’s simply providing a smoother ride for a fearful flyer or ensuring the passenger can type that work report while inflight without a choppy ride causing a spilled drink on their keyboard, real-time turbulence data is essential for informing business pilots and operators about the location, altitude and frequency of turbulence.

Other important advantages include lower cost of aircraft maintenance due to reduced aircraft damage, fuel cost savings with improved routing and the potential for reduced aircraft insurance premiums.

Q:  Tell me more about SmoothSky, how popular has the app been since its launch?

A: Powered by IATA’s Turbulence Aware and supported by Skytelligence, SmoothSky is SmartSky Network’s real-time turbulence avoidance data service. Reports from the IATA Turbulence Aware program are accurate, objective and aircraft generated, so pilots can interpret the data consistently for their type of aircraft and passenger expectations.

The data, known as an Energy/eddy-dissipation rate (EDR), is a consistently calculated estimate of the atmosphere’s turbulent state and not of an individual aircraft’s response to turbulence. EDR is the official International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and World Meteorological Organization (WMO) metric for measuring turbulence intensity and applicable to both business and commercial aircraft. The detailed reports provide the time, altitude, position, mean and peak EDR values as well as wind and temperature data, at regular intervals. Since the data is crowdsourced from commercial aviation, it is anonymised to protect the originating airlines’ identity and privacy.

We’ve seen interest from pilots, flight departments and most recently FBOs, all seeking to improve the efficiency and experience of private flying. It is very reassuring to know what a flight is likely to be like rather than to guess and also helpful to know that if things change while in flight, decisions can be made based on real data rather than more guessing. The days of pilots making announcements to passengers like “We’re going to try 35,000’ and see if that gives us a smoother ride…” are behind us with SmoothSky.

Q: What do you see as the future for turbulence minimisation technology?

A: Moving data on, and with equal importance, off an aircraft has become a key enabler for advancing air travel and we are definitely seeing its benefit through turbulence avoidance. High performance, symmetrical connectivity is allowing us to measure and communicate the state of the atmosphere at an unprecedented level of detail. This knowledge will allow us to do more with the airspace, empowering new industries like Advanced Air Mobility and new technologies like autonomous flight

Turbulence is a naturally occurring event, and with these new tools we are tracking more of it today than ever before. In the future, technology will allow us to have a better understanding of where it is happening and provide us better capabilities for avoiding it on our flights.