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Air turbulence research could lead to safer flights

by Maria Callier
Air Force Office of Scientific Research

6/18/2008 - ARLINGTON, Va. (AFPN) -- Air Force Research Laboratory officials are funding scientists who are researching ways to identify and predict turbulence through the detection of underlying air patterns.

Researchers believe the detection of these underlying structures will make it possible to forecast clear-air turbulence. This capability would benefit manned and unmanned military aircraft.

The work is equally important for the safety of high-altitude Air Force operations, as well as the stable pointing of onboard laser weapons. Ultimately, this Lagrangian skeleton approach could also be used to locate the source of dispersed chemical or radioactive pollution, thus improving homeland security.

Dr. George Haller, professor of mechanical engineering, and MIT graduate student Manikandan Mathur, lead a research team exploring the impact of turbulence on engines, airframes and consequently, air travelers. The two have made a discovery they refer to as the "Lagrangian skeleton of turbulence," since the work of 19th century mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange inspired the team's particle-based approach.

The air pattern structure underlying turbulence is a complicated, ever-changing configuration that affects the motion of nearby particles (e.g., pollutants, stratospheric ice crystals). Monitoring the backscattering of onboard lasers enables detection of this particle movement, which serves as a reliable predictor of ensuing turbulence. The MIT scientists used nonlinear, dynamical systems theory to translate the recorded data necessary for uncovering these effects.

The team is currently working to reduce the time it takes to produce detailed images of detected structures. The researchers are also developing laser-based scanning techniques that yield more complete wind data.

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