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Surface traffic management research presents some unique challenges not present in other air traffic domains. Surface traffic management and the development of automation capabilities to improve surface operations are very dependent upon existing airports; for major airports in operation today, it is unlikely that many will be able to change significantly in response to increased demand. Each airport is very different, owing to its size and geographical features which affect how it can effectively expand or absorb additional demand on its resources. Furthermore, airport operations and surface traffic are managed by not only the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), but by regional airport authorities and airlines. These various operators have sometimes conflicting objectives that affect the schedules of departures and arrivals and surface operations as a whole can become uncoordinated and reactive, contributing to the complexity of surface traffic management today. These variables (airport design and configuration, layout, and interaction of airport operators) will have to be efficiently integrated so as not to result in gridlock in a future transportation system which is anticipated to grow by 2-3x current day traffic levels.

The Aviation Systems Division has contributed to surface automation research for many years, including the development of the Surface Management System (SMS), which was a decision-support tool designed to provide surface traffic planning information to air traffic controllers and traffic managers in the Tower, as well as provide this information to airline ramp and operational control personnel. SMS was developed in cooperation with the FAA, and was tested at Ames' FutureFlight Central (FFC) facility as well as field tested at the Memphis International Airport, Memphis Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON), and Memphis Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC). Results of these experiments can be found in the Publications section of this website. FedEx and UPS are currently using SMS to help manage their daily operations. NASA is now using SMS as a testbed to examine future surface traffic management concepts and technologies.

In support of the Airspace Systems Program's NextGen Air Traffic Management (ATM) Airportal Project, Division researchers are investigating future surface management concepts that will improve surface operations under significantly increased traffic levels. The surface of the airport is widely agreed to be a major bottleneck and limitation to future growth. No matter how much additional traffic is able to be accommodated in the air, current airport surface congestion indicates that solutions have to be developed in the surface domain as well. These projected traffic levels pose challenges for pilot and controller workload, increase the complexity of planning, managing, and executing safe and efficient surface operations, and also will increase environmental concerns.

Despite NASA's past role in surface tool development, there has been comparatively little research on surface traffic management and control, relative to the other air traffic domains. The Division's researchers are now investigating the uncertainties in today's surface traffic operations to determine the constraints, sources of uncertainties, how to minimize the identified uncertainties, and surface controllability options to eventually develop 4-D trajectory based optimized taxi planning algorithms, runway scheduling strategies, and overall system architecture. Researchers are also investigating runway incursions and methods to reduce their frequency and are also working to help identify procedures and requirements that will aid in evaluating the environmental impact of new surface traffic levels and operating procedures. The Division is also investigating information requirements and the enhancement of human performance models to improve our ability to evaluate new concepts and capabilities on the human operators and to be able to determine how roles and responsibilities are likely to change.

All of these ongoing research efforts will eventually lead to a new concept of operations for surface traffic management and control, and will also be coordinated with the ongoing work to increase the capacity and efficiency of the terminal area operations surrounding the surface domain. The Aviation Systems Division researchers in both surface and terminal area are working together to ensure that the air transportation system envisioned for the future has considered the integration aspects of surface and terminal area operations.

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Surface Automation Publications
Link to a list of papers available for download.
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Airport Surface Research
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Fuel Consumption and Emissions from Airport Taxi Operations
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Last Updated: June 21, 2017

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