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INNOVATION Better weather Panasonic product, placed on wings of planes, is changing the forecast

Neil Jacobs is the chief atmospheric scientist at Panasonic Weather Solutions.-(PHOTOS COURTESY PANASONIC)

People have been predicting the weather since the start of time. And usually not getting it right.

These days, an unlikely source has jumped into the game: Newark-based Panasonic Corp.

That’s right, the company perhaps best known for its consumer electronics is using technology — and a whole bunch of commercial airliners — in its latest B2B venture.

The opportunity started in 2013, when Panasonic acquired AirDat, a technology company based in Morrisville, North Carolina, that collects weather data from the wings of airplanes.

Using sensors attached to the body of the plane, Panasonic is able to observe relative humidity, pressure, temperature, wind speed and direction, according to Neil Jacobs, chief atmospheric scientist with Panasonic Weather Solutions.

The technology is not much different from weather balloons, which are still the preferred technology. But relying on weather balloons alone can inhibit the accuracy of the predictions, he said.

“Despite satellites being ‘gee whiz’ technology, the observing system that drives the improvement of forecast skill in the models, even today, is the weather balloons,” he said. “The limiting factor is that there is only two launches a day, globally, and there’s only a handful of locations.

“So, there’s a big space-time gap between the weather balloons.”

There are, however, many flights.

“If you can fill in those gaps with information from a sensor that essentially collects the same thing, you can improve the forecast skill of the models,” Jacobs said. “And the second design of the sensor did just that, observing relative humidity, pressure, temperature, wind speed and direction.”

More frequent data means more accurate weather forecasts, which is undoubtedly a good thing. But how does this fit into the Panasonic business model?

Airlines are more than willing to participate in the program, as their pilots benefit from the up-to-the-minute changes in the weather.

Panasonic then uses the data in a B2B play, selling the information to a number of companies and industries, including: Power and utility companies, which use the data to help predict where there will be changes in energy use.

For instance, excessive heat or cold often correlate to an increase in power usage, while other extreme weather can mean a threat to infrastructure.

Panasonic also sells a segment of its data to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is used as a part of the weather forecasting for the National Weather Service.

Airlines are also being fed the information in real time, allowing pilots and crews the benefit of the weather data its aircraft are collecting.

Working with airlines is a natural fit for Panasonic, which has been delivering content to airplanes for more than 35 years with its in-flight entertainment systems.

“There are two ways to get the data off the plane and one of them is through the broadband Ku, which is what Panasonic Avionics uses for in-flight entertainment on the wide-bodies,” Jacobs said. “So, the data essentially streams off the plane in real time.”

And while the data help those on the ground prepare, perhaps no one benefits as much as the pilots themselves.

“Historically, you’ve probably seen pilots, when they’re boarding planes, lugging those giant bags that they have all those flight plans and information in,” he said. “Well, that’s transitioning to tablets, including weather information.”

Which is a good thing, because those old models can present issues for flights, especially those traveling long distances.

“Right now, the pilot looks at the forecast maps before they take off and that’s what they’re dealing with for the rest of the flight,” he said.

“If it’s an hour-long flight, that’s probably OK, but if it’s a flight across the ocean, obviously the weather is going to change as they progress into their flight.”

That is not the case with this technology.

“The beauty of having two-way (satellite communication) with a plane is that we can actually uplink weather information back to the pilots,” he said. “Today, you have an interactive ability to look at, while the plane is in flight, how it’s going to interact with the actual forecast information.”

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On Twitter: @sheldonandrewj

Andrew Sheldon

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