Partnerships between two global giants and two relative newcomers are working toward providing increasingly accurate weather, flight data, and aircraft tracking information to pilots and flight departments. Executives from GE Aviation, Inmarsat, Spire Global, and MapLarge discussed innovations in cockpit data and flight analytics at the recent GE Waypoints conference in Dallas in February.
“At Inmarsat, our whole business model is based on partners,” said Sam Matar, regional director for Inmarsat in North America. “We provide the infrastructure, the IP pipe to the cockpit, but other companies create the applications that require the pipe.”
One of those relatively new firms is Spire Global, a data and analytics company based in San Francisco that uses a network of small satellites to track weather systems and other global resources.
“We can see the surface, globally, all the way to 242,000 feet with a vertical resolution of 500 feet,” said William Fernandez, business development executive for Spire Global, displaying a 3U cubesat measuring approximately 4 x 4 x 12 inches with folding solar panels adding another 8 inches to each side. “Each of our 3U satellites performs three functions: GPS Radio Occultation (GPS-RO) for weather data collection, ADS-B aircraft tracking, and maritime ship tracking. We have seventy-two 3U satellites currently in low Earth orbit, and we’ll be up to 175 satellites within the next two years.”
GPS-RO interprets the refraction of a signal from a geospatial satellite to a satellite in low Earth orbit caused by temperature, pressure and water vapor content. Measuring this refraction as the GPS satellite passes through different levels of the atmosphere provides precise weather data at various altitudes. According to Fernandez, Spire’s network currently captures and analyzes 10,000 RO pickups per day, surpassing the resolution and data collected by NOAA satellites. When the full constellation of 175 satellites is complete, Spire will collect 120,000 RO pickups per day, increasing horizontal resolution to 1 km everywhere on Earth.
“Right now we are already beating NOAA and the UK weather model in accuracy and surpassing the European weather model not only for one-day [forecasts] but for the seven-day medium range forecasts as well,” said Fernandez. “We insert this radio occultation into our global validation model to build short term forecasts from zero to 24 hours. We can give you the latest weather—including winds aloft and turbulence—anywhere in the world, and update that weather every hour even en route.”
Spire’s Airsafe product suite also provides space-based ADS-B to allow aircraft tracking in the parts of the world where aircraft can still “fall off the radar.” For corporate flight departments, Fernandez said Spire’s ADS-B tracking solution “is priced competitively with other ADS-B data services that don’t use space-based systems” and has the benefit of potentially seeing low-altitude drones equipped with ADS-B transceivers since the space-based system can detect ADS-B all the way to the surface.
Big Data Integration
Spire’s partnership with Atlanta-based MapLarge combines weather data and/or ADS-B aircraft tracking with detailed geographic information systems (GIS). “One of the programs we’re working on right now is to take the weather information from the satellites, pass it to MapLarge to develop a visual weather forecast for us, and then pass it to Inmarsat for delivery to the cockpit,” said Fernandez. “Instead of a four-hour-old weather report, pilots can have updated weather every hour.”
Formed in 2009 to provide “big data” visualization services, MapLarge combines millions or billions of data points with GIS data to visually depict information for various industries including health care, utilities, oil-and-gas, insurance and risk management, and aviation. Information can come from databases, sensors, or other sources.
“We’re on the cusp of a sensor revolution,” said MapLarge CEO Lynwood Bishop. “Sensors are coming down in price and going up in capability, capturing increasingly more data. So we’re focused on taking big data and putting the right information into the cockpit at the right time. We’re building applications from a variety of data sources like GE’s EMS [Event Measurement System], ADS-B, and weather from Spire, delivered to the pilot in the cockpit over an IP-based system like Inmarsat.”
Creating custom mapping solutions based on customer requirements and datasets, MapLarge is working with various aviation entities to find operational efficiencies and flight optimization. “Air Asia is taking [GE] EMS data off of the engines, working with the flight analytics group, and putting that data into MapLarge to create a fuel savings model based on calibrating approaches,” said Bishop. “You could tweak the model even more by adding the wind data from Spire, determining best altitude based on winds aloft before takeoff.”
Fernandez agreed. “Being able to integrate GE EMS data, live tracking from ADS-B, and precise weather information from Spire on a MapLarge platform allows airlines to look at a true picture of the flight environment around the world,” Fernandez said. “You can’t do that any other way without this partnership.”