NextGen Helps With Air Traffic Management Concepts And Procedures
July 24, 2013

NextGen Helps With Air Traffic Management Concepts And Procedures


The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that there are approximately 23,000 scheduled takeoffs and landings in the U.S. each day. Behind the scenes, air traffic controllers coordinate and communicate movements to the pilots that ensure safe operations with minimal delays.

Even further behind the scenes, at NASA Langley's Air Traffic Operations Laboratory (ATOL), pilots and air traffic controllers have a unique opportunity to improve or develop new air traffic management concepts and procedures by simulating the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), which will transform and enhance how airplanes traverse the sky through satellite-based technology.

Stages of NextGen implementation will gradually take affect through 2020. In collaboration with other government agencies, industry, and the international R&D (research and development) community, NASA is developing, researching and maturing components of NextGen.

NASA's ATOL is undergoing renovations that, by Spring of 2015, will double its current capacity for conducting experiments and provide better throughput for users, according to Tod Lewis of Langley's Crew Systems & Aviation Operations Branch.

The ATOL has more than 500 computing platforms, each simulating a high-fidelity aircraft with advanced technologies. The ATOL can also generate hundreds more lower-fidelity background traffic aircraft. The ATOL also has eight air traffic control stations that can be configured to support en-route, terminal, and tower operations.

Experiments performed in the simulation facility allow pilots and controllers to assess the usability, feasibility and acceptability of the advanced concepts and flight deck technologies.

Aircraft Simulation for Traffic Operations Research (ASTOR) stations support studies involving active pilots as participants. The stations, which may be configured to support single or dual crew operations, are used to gain better insight into pilot acceptance of proposed air traffic management concepts. Live controllers, who also operate simulations from the ATOL, interact with the pilots through voice and data link communications to provide a realistic flight environment.

Each ASTOR includes a pilot model that allows system studies involving hundreds of aircraft. The simulated aircraft interact with each other and with piloted ASTORs, resulting in various configurations and air traffic scenarios.

The ATOL can connect to other flight simulation facilities at Langley, such as the Cockpit Motion Facility, or to air traffic management simulation labs in other parts of the country, creating sophisticated experiments that address critical research questions.

"Although the Airspace and Traffic Operations Simulation (ATOS) is designed for research, its simulated systems are designed in consideration of real avionics architectures and flight deck procedures to every extent possible," Lewis said. "The ATOS design also considers guidelines and standards that the aviation industry is developing for future architectures."

Using ATOL's capabilities, NASA is developing Airborne Precision Spacing (APS) flight guidance to help increase arrival efficiency and throughput at capacity-limited airports. APS allows pilots to manage their speeds during descent and approach, and to space precisely relative to other aircraft. This will allow more aircraft to safely land during a period of time and decrease terminal delays, an important source of overall delay.

The ATOS also provides an environment to research the use of airborne surveillance and onboard tools that can facilitate trajectory changes for greater en-route capacity and efficiency.

Will Abrams of Langley's Center Operations Directorate is managing the reconstruction schedule of the ATOL by working with ROME contractors. Just three months in, the upgrades are a quarter complete.

The first phase of reconstruction, which includes the ATOS, is expected to be complete by November, 2014. The final phase, in 2015, will include full program interface.

When complete, there will be two pilot rooms, two air traffic control rooms, two ATOL control rooms, a test and integration room and a pilot briefing room.  Also, the Unmanned Aerial Systems Lab will be integrated with the reconstructed ATOL.

Since its creation in 1998, the ATOL has consistently undergone simulation development to meet ongoing research requirements. As Lewis explained, the ATOL has grown from an initial 12 ASTORs to over 500. Within the last couple of years, the ATOL's capability has greatly expanded with the addition of dual-crew ASTORS and the integration of Air Traffic Display software provided by NASA's Ames Research Center.

According to Lewis, the ATOL will be at the forefront as the future National Airspace System unfolds, which may include overland supersonic flight, Unmanned Aerial Systems, Personal Air Vehicles, aerial power generation platforms, and autonomous aerial vehicles.


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