Report details how Alaska Airlines is using AI to better map flight routes and save time and fuel

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Flying over the Cascade Range in Washington state. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

If you’ve ever stared out the window of a passenger plane, or tracked your flight as it moves across the sky on the animated video screen in front of you, you may have wondered how the pilots even know what direction to take. Skilled human flight planners take care of all that — and now they’re getting help from artificial intelligence.

In a new story this week, Fortune reports on how Seattle-based Alaska Airlines is pioneering the use of software to better predict weather and air traffic and help flight planners map out routes. The technology, called Flyways, is made by Palo Alto, Calif.-based startup Airspace Intelligence, whose website only says that it’s “the future of flight control.”

Fortune reports that Alaska has been using the AI alongside its flight planners for the past year, from the company’s new headquarters facility in SeaTac, south of Seattle, called “The Hub.” The trial produced big savings in jet fuel and lower carbon dioxide emissions, and improved on-time performance. And now Alaska will be the first airline to use the software more extensively as it rolls out the system to help dispatch all of its flights — more than 1,000 daily departures — in the lower 48 states.

“This is as game changing for aviation as Google Maps and Waze has been for driving,” Pasha Saleh, Alaska’s director of flight operations, told the magazine.

The AI helps mainly because it can create faster, custom routes that allow airlines to avoid the canned routes used to fly between navigational waypoints — what Fortune refers to as “highways in the sky.” Dispatchers must determine what route a flight is going to take by considering numerous factors, such as weather and wind forecasts, airspace restrictions, reports of turbulence, and more. The FAA-filed flight plan of every of other plane in the sky and how all of them interact also impacts travel.

Flyways, a collection of different machine learning modules linked together, can predict how weather systems will form, calculate the probable position of other aircraft in the sky and build custom routes to react to all factors. And it can do it in seconds, Fortune says, prioritizing the most fuel-saving routes across an entire fleet of aircraft.

According to the report, the startup ended up working with Alaska because the airline was the most receptive to trialing the tech. Among the biggest competitors are flight dispatch software sold by Boeing and its subsidiary Jeppesen, called JetPlanner Pro.

Read the full story on Fortune’s website.

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