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JAXA, Boeing to test 'invisible' turbulence detector

Cheap, high-tech system could reduce violent aircraft movements

TOKYO -- Japan's space agency, known as JAXA, is also the country's top institution dedicated to aircraft research. Since its early days as the National Aerospace Laboratory of Japan, the agency has devoted itself to developing airplanes of the future.

Now it has a technology to detect "invisible turbulence" that it is going to test with the help of American aircraft maker Boeing.

JAXA's Shigeru Machida, left, and Boeing representatives shake hands at a press conference in Tokyo on Aug. 2.

"It is a great opportunity for us to get feedback from a major aircraft producer," Shigeru Machida of JAXA's weather safety avionics research unit said here on Aug. 2. Machida was speaking at a press conference where JAXA and Boeing explained their plan to start testing the technology on a Boeing aircraft next year.

The hope is to commercialize the system in 2023 or later.

JAXA's new lidar, or light detection and ranging, technology consists of four parts: an optical antenna, sensor, signal processor and cooling device. The antenna has a telescopelike device that looks like an eye.

During the feasibility study, the system will be fitted near the cargo door of a Boeing 777 freighter. The system will shoot laser beams that are invisible to the human eye over the plane's left wing and ahead of the plane. Aerosol particles in the air are expected to reflect light from the 150mm-thick beams.

The system then analyzes how actively the reflected light is moving and calculates where and how much turbulence there is up ahead. The system can detect violent movements of air that stretch for 100 meters to 200 meters.

In a preliminary experiment, the 83.7kg-device successfully found turbulence an average 17.5km ahead of the aircraft.

Similar devices are available in the U.S. and Europe, but they are much heavier than JAXA's, weighing about 200kg to 300kg. And their reach is 10km at best. They all use ultraviolet rays to find turbulence. JAXA's lidar uses laser beams, which go easier on the human eye.

Turbulence causes over half of all in-air mishaps. In 2014, an American Airlines jetliner traveling from South Korea to the U.S. was tossed about by turbulence over Japan. Twelve passengers and crew members were injured, some critically.

Clear-air turbulence is quite troublesome. Radar units currently installed on aircraft spot turbulence by sending out radio signals that are reflected by droplets in the air. But when the sky is clear, there are no droplets to reflect the radio signals. Turbulence thus becomes invisible.

Developing ways to avoid invisible turbulence has been considered a particularly important task. In the U.S., cases in which turbulence violently jars a jet are on the rise.

JAXA began basic studies on the issue in 1998. While the system is coming close to being commercialized, there is still a lot more to do -- making improvements as well as negotiating with aviation authorities and parts makers.

The elite group

JAXA's aircraft unit has never been rich in human or financial resources. In recent years, it has been allocated budgets of 3.3 billion yen ($29.9 million), a mere 2% of the agency's 150 billion yen budget and not even enough to launch a single H-IIA rocket. JAXA's mainstay rocket is said to burn 10 billion yen every time it is launched.

Although JAXA has about 2,230 employees, most are involved in space development; only 250 or so work for the aircraft unit.

Now these engineers' work has attracted Boeing's attention. "If we can boost our name recognition, relevant suppliers and regulators will understand [the new technology] better" the aircraft unit's Machida said.

Boeing launched its ecoDemonstrator Program in 2012 to facilitate cooperation with suppliers and other parties toward the commercialization of new technologies. The company has already carried out over 60 kinds of technical experiments under the program, including ones with IHI and Japan Airlines. JAXA's new technology will be tested in the fifth round of the program, which is set to start in March at the earliest.

JAXA and Boeing have been cooperating in basic studies of turbulence detection systems since 2010. Boeing decided to add JAXA's technology to the test program for the sake of cost-efficiency.

Boeing Research & Technology's Charlie Svoboda thinks JAXA's small but powerful system is unique. The system "allows you to think ahead more than a minute of where the aircraft is and see what is happening in the air," he said at the press conference. "We believe this [technology] has the potential to improve aircraft safety ... and also provide a fuel savings benefit."

But he also noted that the technology is in its infancy. The system must be further reduced in size and gain more power before being commercialized. JAXA also needs to work out how to smoothly integrate the unit into Boeing's existing system.

Svoboda said the ideal airplane would be easy to maintain and respond automatically to turbulence. A high bar, to be sure, but he also harbors high hopes for JAXA.

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