FAA, partners mold free flight

Partnering agreements with federal agencies and private organizations are helping the Federal Aviation Administration develop its revolutionary concept of air traffic management called free flight FAA officials testified at a hearing last week.

The free flight system will use an integrated network of air ground and airborne communication systems in conjunction with on-board computers and global positioning system satellites to allow pilots with input from the controllers to set flight routes.

Currently pilots almost exclusively rely on controllers who use a centralized command and control system to set their routes.

Overall the FAA has 475 research agreements including those for free flight. Partners include NASA and the Defense Department.

"Our partnership with NASA is particularly important " said Steven Zaidman director of the FAA's Office of System Architecture and Investment Analysis.

The House Science Committee's Subcommittee on Technology held a hearing to discuss the role of research and development in improving civilian air traffic management. Zaidman said at the hearing that collaborative work on new technologies is critical to modernize the air traffic control system. "Our collaboration has been productive and the FAA believes that it is essential to the further development of the air transportation system " he said.

Partnership DutiesOne of the more significant partnerships the FAA has forged is with NASA Zaidman said. "The NASA role is in basic research designed to provide a technology base for the future air transportation system."

While NASA focuses on the long-range high-risk programs the FAA focuses on lower risk short-term projects.

The free-flight concept and the opportunities it can open up is the "cornerstone of NASA's involvement in aviation capacity research " said Henry McDonald director of NASA's Ames Research Center.

"The goal is to open up the airspace system allowing each user to safely self-optimize. An airspace system robust enough to allow each user the ability to optimize his own operation can in turn provide new opportunities to take advantage of the capabilities of diverse elements of the system [such as] vehicles airports and operators " McDonald said.

However it is important that NASA and the FAA do not overlap in their research and that they keep to the free-flight schedule said Margaret Jenny director of operations research at US Airways and co-chairwoman of the RTCA free-flight select committee. "In the current environment of limited funds and increasing demand we cannot afford to retrace our steps or conduct overlapping research " Jenny said. Jenny who also is a member of the FAA's Research Engineering and Development Advisory Committee a group made up of FAA customers and industry experts suggested that the Science Committee review allocation of all aviation research funds it authorizes and realign each agency's agenda to its mission. Shifting some non-air traffic management research from the FAA to NASA would enable the FAA to conduct air traffic management research she said.

Nancy Price chairwoman of the National Airspace System Air Traffic Management Panel and the Chairwoman of the Air Traffic Services Subcommittee on the FAA Research Engineering and Development Advisory Committee said the FAA's budget must be expanded to accelerate the free-flight demonstration. Any demonstration she added must fit into the overall NAS modernization effort which should be completed by 2005.

"The subcommittee believes that if properly executed the operational demonstration will speed the transition to a modernized NAS " Price testified. "The current [research and development] budget must be expanded to accommodate [free-flight demonstration] and the acceleration of the NAS modernization."

The FAA's air traffic control system has been criticized in the past for its unreliable and outdated equipment. "Despite spending over $1 billion on the effort today's system still relies on the same radar and communication equipment " said Rep. Constance Morella (R-Md.) chairwoman of the Technology Subcommittee in her testimony at the hearing. Still Morella is excited about the potential of new technology and free flight. "The application of new technology developed through the FAA and NASA's [research and development] efforts coupled with a new way of thinking about air traffic control has the potential to generate significant increased capacity for our busiest airports."

It is important she said to make sure the new technology is integrated into the FAA's air traffic control system.

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