Business / Corporate

ANA and Japan's space agency to look into possibility of using satellite system to find optimal flight paths

Kyodo

ANA Holdings Inc. and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) have joined forces to look into the feasibility of using a satellite system to find the best flight paths for airplanes by observing wind and other conditions, thus cutting fuel consumption and costs.

The airline group and the space agency signed a contract in January and aim to conduct joint research with other parties, including Keio University, until next January.

The project is based on a proposal by Ayako Matsumoto, a 35-year-old ANA employee who won the top award with the idea at the 2017 S-Booster space business contest organized by the Cabinet Office in cooperation with JAXA, the airline and other companies.

Some 100,000 flights are operated daily around the world and if airlines are able to reduce aircraft fuel consumption by just 1 percent, it would be possible to save 3.65 million tons of fuel annually, according to Matsumoto.

Saving fuel will allow airlines to not only cut costs but also curb greenhouse gas emissions, she said.

Aircraft fuel consumption is significantly affected by wind direction and intensity, especially by jet streams, which are relatively narrow bands of strong wind in the upper levels of the Earth’s atmosphere. Aircraft carrying unnecessary fuel consume more due to the plane’s weight.

Usually, airplanes fly on set routes in accordance with flight plans submitted beforehand.

But over the last decade or so, All Nippon Airways Co. has switched flight paths of airplanes in service over the Pacific after takeoff to the most efficient ones based on up-to-date weather forecast data, following proposals by Japanese and U.S. aviation authorities.

However, fuel-saving effects were limited because it is not possible to set fixed observation points over the ocean, unlike onshore, and only limited data on wind in the upper levels of the atmosphere is available.

In search of solutions, Matsumoto turned to the possibility of a satellite equipped with the Doppler Lidar system, which JAXA and other entities have been studying.

Such a system could measure the direction and speed of wind by emitting a laser beam into the air and receiving the light backscattered by tiny dust particles in the atmosphere.

Matsumoto believes observed data will allow airlines to set up more efficient flight paths with more accurate and up-to-date weather information.

“In addition to cutting fuel, the utilization of a satellite carrying a Doppler Lidar system could also improve prediction accuracy for air turbulence and the spread of volcanic ash,” she said.

Currently, airlines develop flight paths using private-sector data based on information originally released by weather agencies and specifically catered to the needs of aircraft.

The data is not updated in real time and actual conditions in the atmosphere can be different by the time flights take off, Matsumoto said.