MUSE shows off air traffic tech

San Diego—A package of software and workstations designed to help air traffic controllers better visualize the flow of airplanes near airports highlighted the annual Air Traffic Controllers Association meeting here last week.

The software, developed by Albuquerque, N.M.-based MUSE Technologies Inc., transforms raw FAA data into what looks like a cutting-edge video game. But the system has nothing to do with amusement. The software aims to help make air travel safer by giving air traffic controllers a clearer picture of aircraft locations and better control to manage traffic, a MUSE spokesman said.

Like standard air traffic control displays, the system can show a picture of the entire United States or a particular region of the country from a top-down view, as if the viewer was looking at a flat map with dots representing aircraft. But with the MUSE system, controllers can zoom to particular airports, for example, and observe air traffic as if they were floating in the sky.

Controllers can look at sky views that only show planes headed for specific airports. One demonstration displayed the Dallas-Fort Worth airport from the south and from several thousand feet in the air. The planes headed toward the airport looked like a thick swarm of wasps from many directions. Just above the airport, the swarm formed a funnel, with individual planes dropping out of the sky in rapid succession and onto the runways.

If the controller wants to review the elevations of the planes on his screen, he can take advantage of a function that attaches thin white lines from the bottoms of the planes to the ground, which vividly portray differences in elevation from aircraft to aircraft.

Controllers also can click on an individual aircraft and the icon, a colored triangle, will transform into the image of a jet. A purple band will extend from the aircraft to the next-nearest plane. A box appears that shows the plane's elevation, its time of arrival and destination. To see what is happening on the ground, the controller can get a live video feed of planes taking off and landing or of planes stacked up and waiting for takeoff.

Richard Wright, an expert in traffic management systems for the Transportation Department's Volpe Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, Mass., said the software is not ready for use at air traffic control centers across the country.

"What we are trying to do here is use some of the data (from the FAA) and some advanced technology and maybe open up a door to the future," Wright said. "What's important is not showing a particular application that will be used to control airplanes. Instead, we are exposing the community to some new technology and looking for comments on how it could be used."

Eventually, it could become a product that augments traditional flat air traffic control screens with multidimensional data, or it could replace the traditional screens, Wright said.

Among other things, the Volpe center is a repository of FAA data. It gave personnel at MUSE data chronicling all air traffic above the United States at a point in time, and MUSE used the data to develop the software and demonstration.

Creve Maples, MUSE's founder and its chief scientist, said the company started in 1990 as a research and development project out of the Energy Department's Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque. Maples said Sandia researchers became frustrated trying to understand vast and complicated sets of data, so they tried to figure out ways to give the data visual depth and breadth and mass.

By 1995, he said, the project was so successful that Martin Marietta Corp. (now Lockheed Martin Corp.), which runs the Sandia laboratories, encouraged Maples and others to start their own company.

Since then, the company has been giving shape and heft to data for clients in a wide range of industries, from oil and gas to medicine to transportation. MUSE has done work for federal clients, including DOT, NASA and the Navy. "[The MUSE system] is a tool that allows our customers to take complex information and fuse it together into a single environment," the MUSE spokesman said. "It helps users recognize trends, patterns and anomalies."

The software developed by MUSE is being offered in conjunction with a workstation developed by Hewlett-Packard Co., which uses joysticks instead of just keyboards or mouses and can be manipulated using voice commands. The workstation can be composed of one large screen or three connected computer screens, forming a subtle arc to help deepen the spatial effects of the software.

The MUSE booth at the conference was crowded, with MUSE employees demonstrating the system on a large screen.

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