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How AI is Helping Airlines Tackle Contrail Emissions

Clearing the skies with AI

How AI is Helping Airlines Tackle Contrail Emissions

The white streaks crisscrossing the sky, known as contrails, are more than just a visual spectacle – they're a significant contributor to aviation's environmental impact. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), clouds formed from contrails account for a staggering 35% of the global warming impact from the aviation industry.

As the world grapples with the urgency of addressing climate change, airlines, tech companies, and researchers are turning to artificial intelligence (AI) to help navigate a path towards reducing contrail emissions.

Contrails, short for condensation trails, form when water vapor condenses around jet engine pollutants. While they may seem harmless, these cloud formations can persist for hours, trapping heat and contributing to the greenhouse effect. In some cases, contrails from separate jets even combine, creating a larger surface area that intensifies the warming impact.

To explore the possibility of mitigating contrail formation, American Airlines, Google Research, and Breakthrough Energy, an initiative by Bill Gates, conducted a series of 70 test flights using satellite imagery and AI. The goal? To identify conditions where contrails are likely to form and plan routes that avoid those areas.

How AI is Helping Airlines Tackle Contrail Emissions

By leveraging AI and satellite data, airlines can potentially plan flight paths that minimize the formation of persistent contrails. The initial tests showed promising results, with planes successfully avoiding contrail creation when following the optimized return routes suggested by the AI model.

While the initial findings are encouraging, reducing contrail emissions on a larger scale will require a collaborative effort among airlines and the integration of AI technology into existing flight planning systems.

"If one airline avoids creating a contrail and another doesn't, you still have the contrail," says Jill Blickstein, Vice President of Sustainability at American Airlines, emphasizing the need for industry-wide adoption.

Delta Air Lines, in partnership with MIT's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, is also developing an AI-powered algorithm to detect and forecast contrails, with the ambitious goal of reducing them by 80%.

Addressing the issue of contrails can be as straightforward as adjusting the altitude of planes to avoid areas with high humidity, conditions that are conducive to contrail formation.

"You've probably been on a plane where you hit strong turbulence and the pilot says we're going to go up or down to get out of it; so this would be the same thing," explains Marc Shapiro, head of the Breakthrough Energy Contrails team.

While these altitude adjustments may result in a slight increase in fuel consumption due to deviations from optimal flight trajectories, the potential environmental benefits outweigh the costs.

As the aviation industry continues to explore sustainable solutions, the integration of AI technology in contrail mitigation efforts represents a promising step towards reducing the industry's carbon footprint and paving the way for a greener future in air travel.

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