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Airport Technology International
2002 Issue
By James E. McClenahen, NASA

Curing Critical Capacity Problems
A new state-of-the-art facility has been developed that simulates all aspects of airport and air traffic control operations to test them safely prior to deployment. It also gives airport managers an opportunity to study the effects of various improvements at their airports.
Operating an airport is about teams of people working together to safely guide planes on and off the ground. It is now possible to assess the workloads and interaction of these airport personnel who manage the ever-increasing air traffic. NASA FutureFlight Central (FFC) is one of the most significant virtual air traffic control (ATC) tools to date. FFC is a world-class simulation and test facility. Entering the tower cab is similar to stepping into an ATC tower at any of the busiest US airports -- it shows real controllers issuing instructions to flights that allow gate pushback, taxi, take-off and land clearances.

In FFC, controllers communicate with the aircraft using Raytheon's CommPlus System, a simulated radio and phone system. They can also talk to other virtual facilities via the system's dial-up functions. FFC can simulate staffing at the busiest of US airport towers with up to 12 operator positions. Consoles are reconfigurable, so any tower arrangement can be created. The controllers are human beings, but the 360° view, aeroplanes and ground vehicles are computer generated.

The heartbeat of the facility is on the ground floor. SGI's Onyx2 is a super-computer capable of processing 3D graphics for depicting up to 200 moving aircraft and ground vehicles simultaneously, in real time. Equipped with six graphics pipes, 16 processors, and two gigabytes of dynamic memory, the system sends the digitised visual data to 12 projectors located behind the windows in the tower cab. Each projector is capable of 2000 by 2000 resolution and transmits its image onto a mirror that reflects its image onto one of the 12 giant screens.

The pilot room next door can staff a maximum of 12 'pseudo-pilot' positions. Using Adacel Technologies interface software, these pilots 'fly' the virtual aeroplanes, according to the verbal instructions from controllers in the tower cab. Each pilot handles up to 15 moving 3D models at a time. They communicate with ATC using headsets and the radio system. Raytheon's CommPlus software can be configured to support all radio frequencies including the 'party line' communications operating at an airport.

Airport operations and engineering

Ramp tower controllers provide gate pushback and arrival instructions to flight operating in designated airport ramp areas using computer screens displaying the areas under their control. There is also an area set aside for an airport operations centre where emergency situations can be simulated. In the test engineer's room three people are at work. The test engineer controls the dynamics of the simulation environment including initiation, monitoring, suspension and test coordination and can insert any unusual situation or condition such as an emergency or changing weather to test responses. The principal investigator monitors the progress of the simulation and the audio/visual engineer monitors the recordings of the scenario,. Recorded data is also used for statistical analysis, and the facility can output it in a COTS-compatible format.

Customer audio-visual recordings are edited using the facility's advanced multimedia capabiliites. Video footage, still images, charts and overlay text, audio signals or narration can be comined to produce a broadcast-quality video for communicating results.

The need for a safe testing environment grew out of a collaborative NASA/Federal Aviation Administration project, Surface Movement Advisor, (SMA) installed at Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport. SMA is an information-sharing software tool that determines flight status in real time and disseminates the information throughout the airport so that surface activity can be managed efficiently. What was needed was a place for safe testing of new technologies and procedures without impacting working operations, and selected representatives of the airport community participated in the design of FFC.

FutureFlight Central can integrate tomorrow's technologies in a risk-free simulation of any airport, airfield or tower cab environment. Airlines can mitigate passenger delays by fine tuning airport hub operations, gate management and ramp movement procedures. Finally, it enables air traffic controllers to provide feedback and to become familar with new airport operations and technologies before implementation.
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