How Weather Radar Works and How It’s Getting Better


I don’t like thunderstorms. Oh sure, they’re fine if you’re on the ground, but ever since a particularly nasty encounter with windshear in a severe storm flying into Charlotte back in the early 1990s, flying around storms has made me anxious. So when I went to visit with Honeywell back in May, I was particularly interested in learning more about advances in weather radar. Unfortunately we didn’t get into much detail there, but I was able to schedule a follow up call. In short, weather radar is a whole lot better than it was back in the early 1990s, and there are a lot more cool things coming down the pipe.

[Disclosure: Honeywell paid for flights and hotel back in May]

The Basics
I suppose we should start with the basics. How does weather radar work? Well, take a look at that pretty rounded nosecone in the front of the airplane. Now imagine that popped right off. Underneath, you’ll find a big dish (Honeywell’s is 30 inches in diameter) that handles radar duty on every airplane. That’s right, the nosecone is really just an aerodynamic cover and nothing else.

That dish sends out pulses, and then it listens to hear when, or if, they come back. If something comes back, then the radar system figures out how far away it is. That paints a picture on the map of where there are objects. Here’s a basic look at how traditional radar works (all images via Honeywell):

Standard Radar

Of course, something like another airplane is an object that would create a return. Same goes for, oh, say, a mountain. That’s important for navigation, but it doesn’t help with weather. For weather, the returns come from water and ice in the atmosphere. And the size and intensity of the drops paints a picture on the screen for the pilots.

The pilots themselves have some control. As the image above shows, traditionally, they point the radar in the direction they want. If they’re flying straight, then they point it straight ahead. If they’re going to be descending, they might point it down. Or if they’re looking for other altitudes with a better ride, they could point it however they want.

The result is that you get a narrow view of precipitation, but it provides an important tool for pilots. The thing is, there’s a lot more that can be done with this data.

Cool New Stuff
From Honeywell’s perspective, the coolest thing their radar system can do (called IntuVue) is look at all altitudes from ground level to 60,000 feet without making an adjustment. It looks something like this in the cockpit:


The dashed lines in the main display show areas where there is weather outside of the current flight path. So if you need to change your path, then you’ll want to make sure to avoid those areas as well. But instead of manually searching, you can see the whole picture. Here’s another way to look at it on what looks to be a more advanced display:

IntuVue 3D

In this one you can see the whole cross-section at the bottom. This shows that 90 miles away, there is one ugly storm that you can’t fly above.

But there’s a lot more than just this. Radar manufacturers realized that they could measure the movement of the water droplets, and that can tell you all kinds of interesting information.

The most obvious is a turbulence predictor. Radar systems now can look 40 to 60 nautical miles ahead and measure how much the drops are moving. If they are moving a lot, then that means there’s likely going to be a lot of turbulence if an airplane flies through it. That looks like this:

A380 Turbulence Image

If I’m a pilot looking at this, I either need to climb to about 30,000 feet to get over this area of turbulence, or I need to go to the left to go around it.

You can imagine how this also lends itself to predicting windshear. Sudden changes in the direction of wind can easily be seen if there’s moisture in the air. If that happens on final approach, then pilots can be warned and you’ll probably be going around. In other words, what I flew through 20 years ago would not be flown through today.

Take this and combine it with temperature data and it can also help with predicting damaging weather events like lightning and hail. Honeywell said that with its tests, there was a 93 percent correlation between where Honeywell predicted there would be lightning and where it actually occurred. A lightning strike won’t usually cause much damage, but it still means a lengthy check after arriving. And of course, hail can cause serious damage.

Cool Stuff That’s Coming
As computing power increases in these systems, there’s a lot of cool stuff that can be done. Honeywell told me about two projects that are in progress now.

The first is working to create images that will show where a storm will be when the airplane gets there. Today, you see real-time weather images but the Honeywell system goes over 300 nautical miles out. So what they want is a system that will take into account movement of the storm to help pilots to know where the storm will be in 30 minutes when they get to that point. It can help pilots pick a better routing further in advance.

They are also working on modeling storm growth and decay. This is most important around nasty thunderstorms. You might be flying at 32,000 feet, and the storm ahead tops out at 30,000 feet. But what if it’s still growing and by the time you get there, you would be in the thick of it? Or what if there’s a storm ahead of you that’s collapsing? You might not have to change your routing because by the time you get there, it will be smooth sailing.

This is all pretty comforting stuff, but to me, the most interesting issue is one that is still pretty far off. Since radar requires something like a water droplet to create a return, it still can’t detect one of the bigger causes of injury – clear air turbulence (CAT).

The winds may be whipping around in crazy patterns that can shake an airplane severely but if there aren’t water droplets present, radar is useless. So weather radar manufacturers are working to figure out how they might be able to detect that.

The most promising method seems to be one that uses lidar. (Europe has been experimenting with this already.) Using lasers, they can get readings off the air molecules themselves. And if you can then measure the movement of those molecules, you can detect clear air turbulence.

This is still in the fairly early stages. I asked Honeywell if someone in their advanced technologies area could talk to me about this, but apparently it’s so early for them that they don’t really have anything to discuss. Once that actually happens, however, it would be a huge leap forward, and it’ll soothe the nerves of a lot of anxious travelers.

See other posts in my Honeywell series:
I Was on an Airplane That Nearly Crashed Into a Mountain (On Purpose)
What the F*&@ is an Auxiliary Power Unit?

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16 comments on “How Weather Radar Works and How It’s Getting Better

  1. When clear air turbulence happens I think everyone is more concerned since they look out the window and see clear blue skies, so naturally think the plane is about to go down. At least when it’s stormy outside they expect some shaking and may not worry as much.

  2. Great stuff Cranky. I also get a bit nervous flying around/over thunderstorms or knowing that we’ll be flying through a weather system at some point during the flight. By the way, didn’t Northwest Airlines- back in the day, utilize some weather detecting technology that the other airlines weren’t? If so, did Delta adopt this when they acquired them?

      1. That ABC News article at Flyertalk is quite interesting for its bit at the end of the other airlines that are picking it up: “Mesaba Airlines, Legend Airlines, Piedmont Airlines and Virgin Atlantic Airways” Seems odd that two of the four are regionals.

    1. They actually used the same technology everyone else had. The difference was that NW had a different policy in terms of avoiding rough areas at all costs. So, where a WN or a UA pilot might look at the info and decide to fly through it because the bumps would be light or moderate and only last a short time, the NW pilot would burn fuel and schedule to go around the area. From what I understand, some, but not all, the policies were incorporated at DL.

  3. Great article, Brett.

    Do RJs typically have the same weather radar equipment as mainline aircraft? It definitely feels to me like airlines are getting better about flying around bad weather these days, but I’ve had some not-fun rides in RJs. Not sure if that’s just because you feel it more in the smaller plane.

    Also, is weather radar inop something that can be deferred? I remember congratulating the pilots on a United Express flight a few years ago that dodged some winter storms, and they shrugged and said their radar was inop and we’d just gotten lucky. Sure seemed like they were serious — I was pretty surprised that was something that could be flown without.

    1. Geoff – On the first question, I’m guessing RJs don’t have systems that are as good because they probably can’t fit a 30 inch dish under the hood. Honeywell told me IntuVue is on an option for the 737, A320, A330, and 777 families. It’s standard on the A380 and will be on the A350. No talk about RJs.

  4. An excellent post and thank you. Honeywell is on top of improved radars and pilot-friendly displays. That said, the pilots must learn how to use this enhanced information and the learning curse is steep. As with any new flight deck instrument or display, it is only as good as the pilots who use it, in fact command it. The improved techno-gizmos are only as good as the folks who learn to operate them and to properly interpret the information. Some will learn and some will not. In that sense, maintaining state of the art currency is important to all professions. A few steps can be mandated, but most are really a personal, *professional* responsibility. The pilot’s professional obligations do not end when the parking brake is set. Great post!

    1. Very true. The Southern Airways Flight 242 crash is decades old, but it highlighted the need to properly interpret data.

      I’m guessing that either pilots are now trained on this, or the weather radar has been updated.

  5. Interesting stuff. The other approach is equipping the aircraft to dampen the effects of turbulence. Together the two approaches should help make a smoother ride. Nice pictures Cranky!

  6. Awesome! A post for weather geeks!

    Bloomberg ran an article a couple of months ago about how some airlines, notably Southwest, are installing special sensors in their planes to better measure meso-scale atmospheric conditions, and thus, better predict the local effects of large-scale weather events like ice storms, as well to detect and transmit information about turbulence in-flight.

    Apparently some of the data is fed back to the National Weather Service to also assist forecasters on the ground to refine public forecasts. I’d be curious to see how Honeywell’s fancy new radars get integrated into this effort. Taken together, this sure seems like it could be a game changer – better advance forecasting of large-scale weather events combined with better real-time information of localized threats. Or heck, even the eventual ability to forecast where those localized events will occur and avoid them before they even happen.

    1. Seems pretty cool.. But knowing the airlines they’re going to want to lease the space to the weather service on their aircraft for those sensor or more likely, they’ll want to sell the data..

  7. Oh, a question that I’m curious about with these new systems.. Is there an increase in false positives?

    I was on a Compass flight from SEA to LAX and we had 20-30 minutes where the fasten seat belt sign was on and the flight attendants were very forcefully verbally enforcing that the sign was on. The flight was pretty smooth though..

  8. So given that airliners are in service for 20-30 years, how often (if at all) do systems like this get upgraded?

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