Google: AI can reduce aviation’s contrails & climate impact

Google, American Airlines and Breakthrough Energy are using AI to reduce the aviation sector’s climate impact by limiting the number of contrails formed

American Airlines, Google Research and Breakthrough Energy are collaborating to lessen the number of aviation contrails – the thin, white lines left behind by aeroplanes. 

By collecting data and using AI, the businesses are looking to develop forecast maps for contrails, to see whether alternative routes can be taken by pilots. 

“At Google, we’re always looking for ways that AI can help individuals and partners live more sustainably and mitigate their climate impact,” says Kate Brandt, Chief Sustainability Officer at Google. “The aviation industry is one that we all rely upon, but that also significantly contributes to global warming.

Why are contrails bad for the environment?

The white clouds form when aeroplanes fly through areas of humidity, and, depending on the atmospheric conditions, can remain for minutes or hours as cirrus clouds. 

What’s more, these contrails account for approximately 35% of the aviation sector's global warming impact – over half the impact of the world’s jet fuel, according to research from the 2022 IPCC report.

They also create a net warming effect, reflecting sunlight back into space during the day and trapping large amounts of heat into the Earth’s atmosphere, which would otherwise be released.

However, contrails formation can be reduced if pilots avoid flying through areas with high humidity. 

How AI is reducing the impact of contrails

Over a six-month period, 70 pilots from American Airlines used Google’s AI-based predictions, which were cross-referenced with Breakthrough Energy’s open-source contrail models, to avoid flying through altitudes that were likely to form contrails. 

In doing so, contrails were reduced by 54% – as shown by data and satellite imagery – indicating that the aviation sector can reduce its climate impact, simply by flying commercial flights on more sustainable flight paths.

However, to avoid areas that formed contrails, the aeroplanes burnt 2% more fuel. This suggests that only a select number of flights should be redirected to avoid areas of high humidity, but in doing so, the total fuel impact could be as low as 0.3% across an airline’s flights.

By using AI to contrail formation, the sector potentially has a cost-effective method to reduce its environmental impact, while saving around US$5-25/tonne CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent). 

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