It’s All in the Timing: New Tech to Tighten Aircraft Spacing


For anyone who travels we have all been
here. Stuck on a flight circling the airport waiting for our turn to land or
stuck on the ground waiting for our connecting flight to finally arrive. It
seems like being delayed at airports has become the norm and with more and
more people traveling by air every year if something isn’t done then this problem
will only get worse. Luckily for all of us
NASA and their commercial partners have developed a new technology called flight
deck interval management or FIM to minimize these types of delays and to
make travel faster and more economical for all of us.
Much of the early testing and research for this new approach was performed by
using sophisticated computers and flight simulators at NASA field centers, but to
make sure this system will work for commercial flights NASA must now test
this tech in real-world conditions on real flight tests. So NASA and its partners are here in
Seattle Washington taking part in a comprehensive flight test campaign
called ATD-1 or air traffic management technology demonstration -1. Once they’re done here
they hope to be one step closer to minimizing those annoying delays.
To understand what the ATD-1 program is and how they hope to integrate the flight
deck interval management system into commercial aircraft we must first
understand why there are flight delays today. Currently the system works like
this – air traffic controllers are in charge of the spacing and sequencing of
all inbound aircraft. The air traffic controllers use radar to track and
manage all incoming aircraft giving speed up slow down and vector
commands to the pilots coming in to land. The pilots comply with these commands and based on those instructions are placed in a landing queue in front of or behind other aircraft. Although our current air traffic management system
and radar technologies does a good job of managing all those flights this is
where delays begin. Radar can be imprecise and because voice communication between humans introduces delays the air traffic controllers are cautious and require greater spacing between airplanes to maintain safety the spacing gets even larger at peak times and in bad weather causing more delays. Because researchers know why there are delays they think they know how to solve the problem. With the current technology that we use which a lot of it from the
radar dates from the 40s and 50s with a lot of the procedures that we’ve built
around it from the 60s 70s and 80s that were pretty close to the maximum
capacity that we have with the current system. So this does specifically address
that we think we’ve hit that limit and we’re looking for a new way to do
business so that it is more scaleable, more responsive, more efficient,
so instead of relying just on radar which is still very effective we’re relying on
something called ADS-B which is automatic dependent surveillance which
is broadcasted. And so now we have the aircraft are actually sending out signals
that all the other aircrafts and the ground can see. This gives us much more accurate information we can we can create more sophisticated plans and then
the decision support tools that Ames built for the controllers and what we’re
building from the pilot allow the controllers and pilots both to execute to this much more sophisticated schedule than we have currently. With this new
technology the pilots will no longer be reliant only on air traffic control but
can follow automated directions on their onboard flight deck interval management
system. Air traffic controllers are responsible for spacing with FIM and
understanding ADS-B we now have the capability on the airplane that we can
get signals from the other airplanes and know where they’re at. We know their
state data we know their speeds their altitudes and so we can actually space
them off of each other so that we’re getting more airplanes through. Right now
air traffic controllers space people further apart because they don’t know
necessarily the winds and how the airplane is reacting because every
airplane that reacts differently. But if you put that information in the cockpit
with the pilot and have the air traffic controller issue him a flight deck
interval management of FIM clearance then he can space off the guy in front
of him so you’re getting more airplanes through. Not an easy problem to solve
because right now you’ve got everybody lined up but what about when you have
those guys coming from the other direction, you’ve got to create a space
for them and slide them into the chain to get them in also and so it’ll be boom
boom boom. Even when you get whether you will be able to target them in and get
more airplanes in and out so that you’re increasing your
throughput which saves fuel, saves time, saves money ultimately for the
consumer. it works like this – this nasa-developed
software keeps track of the speed and position of the airplanes as they
approach an airport. GPS signals determine each planes location and
ground speed then broadcasts this information to satellites and ground
stations about once every second. The FIMS system automatically calculates
how fast the plane should be traveling to maintain the proper spacing between
them and displays that information on a tablet in the planes cockpit. The pilots
see their speed and the speed of other aircraft around them in real-time
allowing for safe distancing until the landing gear touches the ground. Because
this software can predict the moment when an airplane touches down within a
few seconds pilots and ground controllers plot each planes route more
easily and efficiently. With tighter spacing, planes won’t loiter in the air
as long which means there is the potential to use less fuel, reduce noise and
pollution for communities around airports and have fewer flight delays for
the flying public. Working with Boeing, Honeywell, the FAA, United Airlines
and others this NASA led project performed the flight tests out of Boeing
field and out of sea-tac airport in Seattle. For these tests they flew three
research vehicles including Honeywell 757, a Honeywell business jet and a
United Airlines 737. The planes each carrying the necessary tech ran
simulated approaches and landings at a Grant County International Airport near
Moses Lake which is about 120 miles east of Seattle. These tests were invaluable
helping the team to see what works and what needs some tweaking. The average day will probably start off seven o’clock 7:30 we’ll have a mass brief where we get all the flight crews and the flight test directors and engineers
together. We’ll talk about the date we’re going to have air traffic control
representatives in the briefing with us as well.
And then by nine o’clock 9:30 we be at the aircraft and takeoff from both
Boeing fields which is where the two Honeywell aircraft will be and then
Seattle Tacoma International which is where the United aircraft will be. As
the day begins each plane takes off and they head to their testing area then
follow the leader begins. It’s interesting that you say follow the leader because
that’s a very simple description of what we’re trying to do. There’s
one aircraft that would be identified as the lead aircraft. Their using an automatic
dependent surveillance broadcast signal. The aircraft are following them have
been given instructions – follow your leader – follow that aircraft by 180
seconds. And now what we’ve developed are software tools and displays that can
show the flight crews whether they’re at that 180 seconds – whether they’re going a
little bit too quickly or with a little bit too slow – If they’re a little bit out
of position it can guide them back into that position with these tools and
everybody stays in line and the flow of traffic continues on down to the runway
very smoothly. So far this GPS based technology has been handily guiding
airplanes in from cruise altitudes at 35,000 feet all the way through descent
and then to their final approaches with incredible precision. So, researchers are
feeling competent that they are on the right track. Currently more than half a
billion passengers fly every day here in the US and that number is expected to
double to about a billion passengers per year by 2030. If we have the ability to
land a few more aircraft at each Airport every hour it would add up to thousands
of extra passengers per day getting to their destinations on time. Multiplied
over the entire country it’s easy to see why this idea is so intriguing and why
NASA and its partners are working hard to solve this problem. More testing will
continue in the months to come but as for right now this
approach looks incredibly promising.

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7 thoughts on “It’s All in the Timing: New Tech to Tighten Aircraft Spacing

  1. Perfect Timing 0, Law of 0, look within the cockpit 0, all is within the airplane 0 and captain within the cockpit 0, separated by a door 01. From the introduction of language once upon a time to now, it just the way this world and the cosmos works, for certain the milky way., 0. Like clock work. Even silent communicating, colors symbol, signing. Go back in Time as far as you can. Like hieroglyphs, statues, paintings… Turn real life into art. Perception is key. Somethings are both physical and literal, symbol and directional, planetary, all the above. +1, perception is key, like +1 second to +1 man. Trust me, knowing is better than guessing. It's a long story, obviously. 000 10 Nasa.

  2. The TSA, delays, customs crap, and lost luggage…is the reason I drive the 6.5 hours to Canada. It takes less time. I hope ADSB works. Thanks for the detailed analysis! I wonder if the same technology could be adapted to freight trains.

  3. It certainly will-not decrease smog-levels, by packing more arrivals and departures into a day–it must sort the planes further away, to keep the smog away–it's NASA's recognition of the solution as Nav not Helm… P.S. I think you meant 'more accurate' not merely "more precise" (a mistake NASA wouldn't make unless the information is not showing all digits).

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