How AI could help airlines mitigate contrail climate impact

Google Research has collaborated with American Airlines and Breakthrough Energy to use AI & satellite imagery to reduce global warming effects of contrails

Researchers on Google’s Climate & Energy team have partnered with American Airlines and Breakthrough Energy to use AI to develop contrail forecast maps to test if pilots can choose routes that avoid creating contrails.

The partnership is aiming to bring together huge amounts of data from satellite imagery, weather and flight path data to see if Google AI can accurately predict where contrails are more likely to form.

Climate change is continuing to become a high priority for leading organisations worldwide and this type of AI could prove beneficial in mitigating some of the effects of climate change, as well as facilitating necessary adaptation.

Could machine learning impact the future of flying?

Contrails are the cloud-like trails that can be seen behind aeroplanes in the sky as it is soot from a plane’s exhaust. According to Google, contrails are responsible for about 35% of the environmental impact of flying because the fumes spread out and trap heat within the earth’s atmosphere.

This partnership with American Airlines aims to study if Google AI has the potential to accurately predict contrail forming regions. The result could be that pilots would be able to choose different flight paths to avoid contrail forming areas.

Initial results suggest that contrail avoidance could be a very cost-effective way to mitigate climate impact of the aviation industry. It also found that the altitude of some flights could be changed to move away from regions that have high humidity.

Research consisted of a group of American Airlines pilots flying 70 test flights over a period of six months using Google's AI-based predictions. These were then cross-referenced with Breakthrough Energy’s open-source contrail models to avoid altitudes of flight paths that create contrails.

As a result, analysis of satellite imagery found that pilots were able to reduce contrails by 54%. It highlights that the industry has great potential to reduce its climate impact with its commercial flights.

The flights aiming to avoid creating contrails burned 2% additional fuel. However, studies have shown that only a small percentage of flights would need to be adjusted to avoid contrail warming, making the total fuel impact as low as 0.3% across an airline’s flights.

It is exciting to see how AI and machine learning (AI/ML) can help drive this type of research and impact the future of the climate. It could mean positive steps in the journey towards making aviation a zero impact industry.

This type of AI is already very intuitive, according to Google, which could lead to changes in how aviation industries flight-plan and even fly aeroplanes. Time and further research will tell if they will be able to do this at scale. 



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