Google is working with American Airlines and Bill Gates’ climate investment fund, Breakthrough Energy, to develop more sustainable flight routes. The goal is to help pilots limit the climate impact of flying by avoiding routes that create inversion trails – fog condensed mainly from atmospheric moisture – that planes sometimes leave behind. This was written by The Verge.
These trails are a major problem for the planet because they trap heat, accounting for about 35% of aviation’s impact on global warming. Using satellite imagery and artificial intelligence, scientists have developed a way to predict where they are most likely to form. This could give pilots a chance to avoid them and minimize the environmental impact of aviation.
Contrary to the claims of conspiracy theorists, the streaks are not “chemical traces” but condensation marks. They form when water vapor condenses around soot or other particles emitted by a plane. To prevent plumes from forming, planes may try to fly where there is less humidity. This doesn’t mean going off course; pilots just need to be able to see where the moisture is so they can avoid it.
That’s where the new inversion-trail prediction maps from Google and Breakthrough come in. To create these maps, the research team had to analyze tens of thousands of satellite images to detect and mark runways. They used this data to train a computer vision model to detect footprints in satellite imagery. By adding more weather and flight data, the researchers got a model that could predict when and where the tracks might form.
American Airlines pilots have already tested the cards, completing 70 test flights over six months.
“It was very easy, very intuitive. We already change altitudes pretty often to avoid turbulence, so this is completely similar,” said Deborah Hecker, a director of flight operations at American Airlines.
Experts compared satellite images of the test flights with other flights. They found that the number of inversion trails decreased by 54% during the test flights.
This is a promising sign that rerouting is one way that the aviation industry can address climate change while less polluting aircraft and fuels are still being developed.