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January 22, 2002
Press Release: 02-06AR

NASA Software to Help Speed Aircraft Departures

Researchers aim to avert airport gridlock with a new software tool being evaluated in NASA's virtual control tower simulator.

NASA researchers and Dallas/Fort Worth air traffic controllers conducted the second evaluation of the Surface Management System (SMS), being developed at NASA Ames Research Center located in California's Silicon Valley. Current systems used by airports don't provide controllers with accurate information about the number of future departures. During the various 'rush hour' times at the airport, scheduled departures often exceed runway capacity, creating delays. SMS reduces delays by creating an integrated master schedule for aircraft movement and departures.

"The main objective of the Surface Management System is to allow the controllers and airlines to collaboratively manage departure operations and surface movements. The system gathers relevant information from multiple sources, processes it, and displays the appropriate information and advisories to the users," said Dr. Steve Atkins, SMS project lead. "The system has the potential to decrease departure delays significantly," he added.

The information compiled by the system is displayed as aircraft location maps, departure timelines and load capacity graphs giving controllers timely data to effectively manage aircraft movement between the terminal and the runway. With this information, controllers can predict possible traffic congestion and rapidly eliminate system bottlenecks.

Ames' FutureFlight Central (FFC) air traffic control tower simulator was used for the evaluation. FutureFlight Central gives controllers a unique facility to test software tools with its detailed 360° views, providing controllers a very realistic experience. The data collected will be used to refine the SMS user interface and identify additional user features.

"We presented a spectrum of ideas in front of a group of FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) controllers and airline representatives to help us focus on what potential capabilities would be most helpful. Our ideas have been received positively," said Atkins.

The realism provided by FFC will allow for the smooth transition to the field-test portion of the evaluation. Additional features, such as integration with arrival scheduling and integration with other air traffic management tools, will be added as part of the staged evolution of the tool.

Other participants in the evaluation were representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration's Free Flight Program office, officials from major passenger and freight carriers, and controllers from Memphis, Tenn., and Norfolk, Va., airports.

The Surface Management System is being developed at NASA Ames Research Center by the Advanced Air Transportation Technologies (AATT) Project, a part of the Aviation Systems Capacity Program. NASA Ames has been conducting air traffic control research and development since the mid-1980s.

More information about the Aviation Systems Capacity Program can be found on the Internet at:

More information about FutureFlight Central can be found on the Internet at:

Jonas Dino
NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California.
Phone: 650/604-5612 or 650/604-9000
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