FAA, NASA build virtual airport tower

NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration this fall will open the doors of the nation's first full-scale air traffic control simulation facility, which is expected to help the FAA understand how to maintain safe operations as air traffic increases in the years ahead.

The new facility, based at NASA's Ames Research Center, Mountain View, Calif., provides a 360-degree view of a simulated airport, with airfield images generated on 12 windowlike screens by high-powered Unix workstations.

This facility is intended to give the FAA, airport authorities and industry participants the ability to model and test emerging concepts in airport design and air traffic control. Such efforts might help the FAA cope with the increasing volume of air traffic that the agency projects.

In 10 years, the agency expects there to be more than 1 billion air travelers annually in the United States alone, compared with 600 million in 1997, according to Nancy Dorighi, the project operations manager with NASA Ames.

The simulation system, developed by Raytheon Systems Co., can generate images of up to 200 moving air and ground vehicles simultaneously as well as weather conditions, time of day and seasons. Up to 13 "virtual pilots" communicate with the tower via Raytheon's CommPlus communications simulation system.

The virtual tower currently simulates San Francisco International Airport, according to Richard Redhill, a Raytheon project manager in Arlington, Texas.

Officials at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport, which is planning to increase its capacity, also have expressed interest in the facility.

The facility will be the nation's "first control tower simulator for the study of human factors in the world of air traffic control," Redhill said.

The new simulator could be used, among other things, to model proposed changes to airports, such as the San Francisco airport's expansion plan, Dorighi said. The simulator would be able to show airports how a new physical configuration would improve their ability to handle traffic.

The FAA also can use the new facility to test air traffic control concepts and tools. For example, the agency can evaluate the controversial "land and hold short" concept, in which incom-ing flights land and stop on the runway, rather than taxiing all the way to the gates, while some departures are clear-ed for takeoff, Dorighi said.

Or the FAA might test a decision support tool, developed by NASA, that enables aircraft that are still aloft to automatically alert ground crews of the need for aircraft repairs, said Lisa Thorell, an Ames marketing manager.

The facility also can simulate the ramp towers from which airlines control the flow of aircraft at their gates. The airlines are "very interested in optimizing" their performance, Thorell said.

The virtual airport tower is based on Raytheon's off-the-shelf FirstPlus tower simulation software, which triggers Silicon Graphics Inc. workstations to generate images on the virtual windows of the tower, Redhill said.

The virtual tower employs an SGI Onyx2 workstation equipped with 16 processors, six graphics subsystems and 2G of memory for image generation, said Janet Matsuda, SGI's marketing director in Mountain View, Calif.

The open-system solution, running SGI's Unix-based operating system, provides the flexibility and tools needed for ease of software development and simulation scenario growth, according to Matsuda.

The current hardware can expand to 128 processors and 16 graphics subsystems.

-- Adams is a free-lance writer based in Alexandria, Va. She can be reached at [email protected]


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