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Southwest Airlines planes now gathering weather data as they fly


December 18, 2013

Southwest Airlines has installed water vapor sensing systems on many of its aircraft (Photo: Digital Media Pro/Shutterstock)

Southwest Airlines has installed water vapor sensing systems on many of its aircraft (Photo: Digital Media Pro/Shutterstock)

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Every 12 hours, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) launches weather balloons from approximately 70 locations across the US. While these do provide valuable data, a lot can change between those intervals and those locations. That's why a new project is taking advantage of something that's already going up in the sky on a much more frequent basis and in a higher number of locations – Southwest Airlines jets.

Along with NOAA and Southwest, the other partners in the initiative are SpectraSensors and Aeronautical Radio Incorporated.

So far, 87 of the airline's Boeing 737s have been fitted with Water Vapor Sensing Systems (WVSS-II) made by SpectraSensors. These are the same sensors already used on balloons, to measure moisture distribution throughout the atmosphere. By observing how that distribution changes over time, aviation weather forecasters are able to make predictions regarding things like "location and timing of fog, cloud formation and dissipation, and altitudes of cloud ceilings."

The streamlined air sampler (white) is the only part of the WVSS-II that's located on the outside of the aircraft (Image: SpectraSensors)

The newly-deployed sensors will make measurements hundreds of times in one flight, as each aircraft ascends and descends through the atmosphere during take-off and landing. Readings will be automatically transmitted to the headquarters of Aeronautical Radio Incorporated, then processed and relayed to the US National Weather Service (part of NOAA) for use in weather forecasts and warnings.

Plans call for additional WVSS-II's to be added to more aircraft in Southwest's fleet. The project is part of NOAA's Weather Ready Nation initiative, which is aimed at "building community resilience in the face of extreme weather events."

More information is available in the video below.

Sources: Southwest Airlines, SpectraSensors via Wired

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth
1 Comment

My name is Bryce Ford, from SpectraSensors, and we produce the WVSS-II mentioned in this article. I would like to provide a little clarification on a few points. WVSS-II is not the same type of sensor used on weather balloons. The data that they each produce is essentially the same. But the WVSS-II is a Tunable Diode Laser based system that is permanently installed and provides accurate measurements for years at a time. The traditional weather balloon uses older technologies and is typically only used one time, being considered a disposable sensor. The WVSS-II team supporting the NOAA/NWS is led by prime contractor ARINC, and includes UPS, Southwest Airlines, and SpectraSensors. At present, there are 112 WVSS-II sensors supporting the NWS operations. There are 25 units on UPS aircraft and the 87 units on Southwest Airlines aircraft discussed in the article. WVSS-II is also used by other national meteorological services around the globe, coordinated through the World Meteorological Organization, WMO, as part of its Aircraft-Based Observations Program.

Bryce Ford - SpectraSensors

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