AI can help pilots minimize climate-warming aircraft contrails, Google study finds

The global warming impact of aircraft contrails could be curbed significantly by harnessing artificial intelligence (AI) and satellite data to help pilots make improved flight path decisions, according to the findings of a major research project released by Google, American Airlines and Breakthrough Energy.

While most particles from an aircraft's exhaust dissipate fairly quickly in the sky, for a small fraction of global flights sooty contrails are formed and can serve to trap heat in the Earth's atmosphere, further exacerbating the CO2 impact of the aviation industry.

Contrails are thought to be responsible for about 35 percent of the global warming impact of aviation, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

However, studies have previously claimed it should be possible to avoid creating contrails altogether by lowering the altitude for a small fraction of all global flights by a relatively small amount in order to avoid the most humid parts of the atmosphere where contrails are mostly likely to be created.

"You can't fly without burning fuel, but you can fly without creating a contrail," said Erica Brand, senior program manager at Google Research. "Just avoid the super humid regions in the sky."

Google teamed up with American Airlines and Breakthrough Energy to bring together "huge amounts" of satellite imagery, weather and flight path data and then applied AI-enabled analysis to develop contrail forecast maps.

Using these maps, the firms sought to test whether the data could help 70 American Airlines pilots choose flight routes that could avoid creating contrails, and therefore reduce the global warming impact of aviation.

After the test flights, which took place o

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