Monark: A Stepping Stone to a Sustainable, Weather-Ready Future
Acubed’s mission is to bring value to Airbus by building the future of flight now. To that end, Project Monark was founded on the belief that by leveraging Airbus’ globally distributed, connected flight platforms, and properly assimilating sensor data, we could vastly improve weather data input and generate highly valuable weather insights.
Acubed projects exist at the intersection of proven research and demonstrated products. In this way, we are able to move quickly, paying attention to early indicators so that we don’t run blind. At Project Monark, we sought to accelerate data-driven insight tools and aircraft-based atmospheric sensing to benefit Airbus and to make a positive impact in the world. In the end, we were able to do both.
Why weather matters
Weather is vital to Airbus and others in this industry. It impacts the lifecycle of all our products. At a macro level, sustainable growth is critical, not only to the future of the aviation industry, but also to life on Earth. Monark aimed to help future-proof both.
Weather is complicated, and involves nested scales of time and dimension. From aircraft and engine design to route efficiency and safety, weather impacts all aspects of a commercial aircraft. GRAPHIC LINK
Weather impacts every part of the aerospace industry. Here are just a few examples:
- Design: While regulations define the need for and performance of de-icing, they are currently built on atmospheric data from over 40 years ago.
- Go-to-market strategy for sensitive flying platforms: Improved weather information can help us better understand our customer operations per region of the world.
- Contracting: With improved weather insight, we can better understand the ins and outs of potential contracts and how to improve performance offerings without hardware upgrades.
- Flight: Not to be overlooked, optimizing mission performance and smart operational interactions are only possible through knowledge of the system with all the restrictions of its environment and first-class weather data.
When it comes to making a positive impact, we were able to demonstrate that GPS data from commercial aircraft can be used to capture high-value atmospheric moisture profiles that directly improve weather forecasts. Our hope and belief is that this will become commonplace, and future efforts will reference our work. NOAA is allocating 33 million USD a year from 2022-2024 for this type of measurement.
We are equally proud of having scaled and further developed weather-related tool sets for the benefit of many teams inside the Airbus family. This entailed running over 250 million simulations of realistically modeled “digital twin” vehicles flying through 10 years of historical, global climate data; building out a HAPS global launch database for capability planning, airspace negotiations and weather deconfliction; deploying a global icing tool across Airbus; and creating machine interpretable atmospheric data for vehicle autonomy. Built-in features of the tool sets allowed for long-term to real-time planning, from business development, service capability, and extended to operational waypoint automation and conflict planning.
Despite the critical nature of this work, and our project’s initial successes, we couldn’t have foreseen the coronavirus coming with the speed and force on the industry that it has had. The result is that Monark will culminate at the end of June 2020, after essentially one full year as an active project.
While I’m sad to be ending the work with an amazing team, it brings with it an opportunity for a fascinating look at our project’s lifecycle as a sort of “snapshot” of what can be achieved at the breakneck speed of Acubed in just one year’s time, and how innovation can be fostered when supported by big organizations.
To sum up, Monark was able to demonstrate firsts in all of these areas:
- Feasibility of commercial aircraft based GNSS-RO measurements
- Airbus-wide distribution of weather analytics tools
- A 50 km flight of an instrumented autonomous paraglider sonde from 18,000 m.
Beyond the technical work discussed above, technology, it turns out, can leverage exponential human progress, and is somehow an easier part of the innovation equation. It’s the human side of innovation —influencing people’s mindsets, changing workflows and processes—that can prove to be far more challenging than solving hard technical problems. To that end, we are thrilled to have been able to effectively collaborate and secure contracts with many different internal customers within Airbus for Monark’s solutions.
One of the ways we found effective in building those inroads was to quantify the losses associated with not understanding weather. In a given year, route extensions cost airlines over 2 billion USD worldwide. Our work discovered that 20% of those costs can be directly correlated with route extensions due to overlaps with significant weather events. In some areas of the world, with good sensing and weather infrastructure, that impact is as low as 10%. In other areas of the world where aviation markets are growing, the impact to route extensions is as high as 67%, attributable to weather. This puts the correlatable impact of weather on just route extension at nearly 400 million USD per year. It’s important to note that our datasets overlap with the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought about a severe downturn in global flights. It also shows us how much we can improve if we invest in weather infrastructure and technology in areas of the world that need it for both industry and strong communities.
We took creative approaches to weather sensing that didn't always work out. One attempt was to use a dual frequency cell phone for GNSS-RO. The antenna needed modification, and despite the design, test and integration, we failed. We also trained an AI algorithm using fast.ai that utilized NOAA buoys with cameras and wind stations to correlate and learn to read the wind speed off the water. We got within 93% accuracy from the months of data we trained for speed and direction. This proved to be quite reasonable, but we also learned how much work we needed to do to make it better.
These are interesting times: we are on the edge of drone deliveries, flying taxis, non-stop solar powered gliders and our ever-changing planet is something that we must learn to live in balance with. As engineers, scientists, and leaders, it's our duty to focus on building knowledge, allowing for improved planning and more informed choices.
Weather is an invisible force that dominates our lives. We are at a moment where computational resources, sensing, communication and technology are converging in a way that enables us to understand our world better than ever before. Monark proved this through our work. These capabilities will allow Airbus and others to make smarter choices and better align their products and services to the meteorological and operational reality that surrounds them.
In one year, with a small team, with the right mindset and support, we were able to ever slightly move mountains. We were fortunate to follow Acubed projects such as Vahana and ADAM that set the bar very high. We were just getting started when we were impacted by current events. I hope that we have a lasting impact and inspire others to support these types of activities. As operating costs continue to be a sensitivity in the years ahead as air travel progressively returns, I’m confident that we’ll see renewed interest in weather solutions, as making more informed decisions means improving the bottom line. We leave Acubed with our heads held high, looking to the horizon for the next adventure.
Look up, and you’ll find me paragliding, learning about the clouds, and admiring our beautiful, planet Earth.
“Il y a deux choses terribles pour un homme: n’avoir pas réalisé son rêve... ou l’avoir réalisé.” - Bernard Moitessier
First and foremost we built a really great team, and had a blast on this adventure. It would not have been possible without our teammates from Airbus in France, Spain and Germany.