When Thunderstorms Impact Flights, Finding a Right-Sized Solution

July 2022
Topics: Aviation and Aeronautics, Aviation Research and Development, Decision Support (General), Modeling and Simulation
Singapore—a major Asia-Pacific aviation hub—needs a better way to predict and manage the air traffic impact of the region’s frequent thunderstorms. A MITRE team is providing the solution.
Lightning over the skies in Singapore.

Thunderstorms are the most disruptive operational constraint Singapore’s air traffic controllers face. Every flight landing at the island nation’s Changi Airport is an international one, so when weather disrupts Changi’s capacity, the effects can ripple across the Asia-Pacific region. 

Now a MITRE team is creating a capability to give Singapore’s air traffic controllers advance warning about weather events likely to impact air traffic. This will allow them to make earlier and more fine-tuned adjustments to address the disruptions, while producing efficiency benefits well beyond the airport.

The MITRE team’s challenges began with the unique character of Singapore’s tropical weather patterns.

“In the United States, we often have big frontal systems you can see coming many hours ahead of time, while the weather in Singapore is much more complex and nuanced,” explains project leader Mike Robinson. “In the Asia-Pacific region, individual storm cells often have a life cycle of only about 30 minutes. But the way they grow, decay, and merge with one another to create new storm cells and clusters is difficult to predict—and therefore difficult to manage proactively.”

Today, Singapore’s weather-focused air traffic control measures are largely reactive, with pilot deviations around disruptive weather often serving as the initial trigger for broader responses. Without timely advance notice of weather impacts, small and localized constraints can quickly lead to widespread delays and disruptions in the region’s air traffic system.

That’s about to change.

“Our team is working with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore [CAAS] to give air traffic managers not only better weather forecasts but also a sense of how the expected weather could impact air traffic operations,” Robinson says. That information can help flow managers “right size” the mitigations they implement.

“They want to implement the least disruptive management tactic possible and for just long enough to handle the constraint. Too long, and you’re adding unnecessary delay to the system. Our work is designed to help them achieve that sweet spot.”

Better Forecasting Enables a More Targeted Response

To create an improved forecasting capability, our engineers used inputs from a Japanese weather satellite, along with data about pilot responses to convective weather events of varying intensity, to create a model identifying the types of weather encounters likely to be most disruptive to air traffic.  

Using both artificial intelligence and physics-based models, the team also created a capability that predicts locations of impactful weather 6–8 hours in the future. Ultimately, that information will be conveyed to traffic flow managers and operators in near-real time via a web-based weather decision-support capability.

By providing advance warning about potential constraints, the weather forecast tool will allow traffic operators to be more strategic and proactive in their responses.

For instance, rather than using lengthy holding patterns at Changi Airport or grounding flights at departure airports in Thailand or the Philippines, air traffic managers might implement more targeted mitigations—such as increased spacing between flights. Such strategic mitigations would help to reduce delay in the system.

Stakeholder Inputs Will Inform Capability Refinements

As a next step, operational trials are under development. In these trials, Singapore air traffic stakeholders will be able to use the MITRE-developed capabilities in their real-time weather impact planning and decision making. Their feedback will help refine the forecasting tool and determine how existing processes may need to evolve to achieve the greatest benefit.

Once fully developed and tested, MITRE plans to transition the technology to CAAS to operate independently.

“Given the interdependencies of Asia-Pacific nations’ aviation operations,” Robinson says, “the technology has the potential to improve operations not only in Singapore airspace but across the region.”

—by Marlis McCollum

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