Flying plane with rainbow contrails

The Earth’s atmosphere has been modelled in Microsoft Azure as part of a project to tackle climate change caused by aviation

A UK company that aims to prevent 60% of aviation’s climate impact – or 2% of all human-induced climate impact – has used Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform to model the Earth’s atmosphere from ground-level to space.

SATAVIA, which is based in Cambridge, uses artificial intelligence and data analytics to study and tackle aircraft contrail formation. This occurs when aircraft cruising above 26,000ft create clouds that can warm the Earth’s atmosphere.

The company is working to reduce aviation’s impact on the planet through smarter flight planning and the development of an AI platform called DECISIONX, which uses weather prediction modelling to generate a high-resolution replica of the Earth’s atmosphere over time. The platform can quantify atmospheric changes in heat, sunlight, moisture, pressure, temperature, humidity, clouds and wind speed, among other factors.

This platform’s capabilities will enable aircraft operators to accurately forecast, avoid, validate, quantify and offset aviation contrail emissions by optimising flight plans.

Graphic showing the Earth and explaining what SATAVIA's technology does

SATAVIA has mapped many aspects of the Earth’s atmosphere

Dr Adam Durant, the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of SATAVIA, said Azure was “vital” to tackling the issue because of its ability to handle scalability, AI tools and large amounts of data.

“Using our numerical weather prediction model, we can generate a ‘digital twin’ of the atmospheric environment from ground-level to top of atmosphere [around 328,000ft],” said Dr Durant, a professional scientist who has held positions at the University of Cambridge and the Norwegian Institute for Air Research. “Our model performs around 100 algorithmic computations over four billion model cells every 30 seconds for 26 meteorological parameters, generating one quadrillion (1,000 trillion) computations per simulation day – that’s how we define ‘hyperscale’. We’re delighted to have worked with Microsoft on this test of our ability to scale, demonstrating the incredible scalability and ultra-high-performance provided by Microsoft Azure.”

When water vapour emitted from aircraft engines rapidly saturates already moist air, the vapour condenses and freezes into minute ice crystals. This results in the formation of contrail clouds, which trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were more than 93,000 flights a day across the world. A return flight from London to San Francisco emits around 5.5 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per person – more than twice the emissions produced by a family car in a year. Yet contrail formation exerts a climate impact almost twice as great as aircraft engine emissions, accounting for around 60% of aviation’s total climate impact.

SATAVIA has made data from hyperscale atmospheric modelling and tests available to the international scientific community. Dan Baker, SATAVIA’s Chief Technology Officer, said: “We wanted to open up our data to everyone, since it’s an unusually rich data-set in terms of both parameters and resolution. We’re already working with OEMs [original equipment manufacturers], airlines and military operators in multiple locations, but we’re fundamentally a science-based company and we’re keen to support scientific research, too.”

The work being conducted by SATAVIA, which recently migrated its high-performance-compute infrastructure from a physical datacentre to Azure, aligns with Microsoft’s own ambitions to tackle climate change. In January 2020, the technology company announced its intention to be carbon negative by 2030.

Michael Wignall, Azure Business Lead at Microsoft UK, said: “Microsoft is committed to tackling climate change across the world; not only through our own actions but by making our tools available to help others reduce human-led impact on the planet.

“By modelling the Earth’s atmosphere, SATAVIA is helping the aviation sector understand more about its environmental impact. The Azure cloud platform is designed to handle the huge amounts of data that creates, ensuring that information can be analysed quickly and easily, while ensuring complete security.”

Dr Durant added: “Microsoft’s commitments to powering their data centres with renewable energy and to become carbon negative by 2030 resonate strongly with SATAVIA’s vision to make aviation more sustainable. We want to show that we can implement ultra-high-impact applications – like eliminating 60% of aviation’s climate impact with a single hyperscale platform solution – while simultaneously going carbon neutral or even carbon negative.”