'Virtual' tower to ease airport traffic

Moffett Federal Airfield, Calif. — The blanket of fog cutting visibility around San Francisco International Airport as seen from an air traffic control tower looked real.

But the dense fog was computer-generated and just one of the features of a $10 million program called FutureFlght Central, used to test and solve real-life air and ground traffic-control problems at airports by using a simulation facility.

The center, developed by NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration, opened last week. It features a simulated 360-degree tower, where air traffic controllers view lifelike, real-time graphics displaying representations of a functioning airport.

Only San Francisco's airport is portrayed at the facility, which is located at the NASA Ames Research Center here, about 35 miles south of San Francisco. However, officials said, they expect that airports nationwide will participate in the program.

The project has the potential to provide real-time airport tests for safety, efficiency and planning, said Nancy Dorighi, the FutureFlight Central facility manager.

"For example, San Francisco International Airport can test new technology, coordinate traffic between runways or optimize gate management," Dorighi said.

Working conditions also can be examined. Cameras monitor the traffic controllers, and in a separate room, "pseudo pilots" maintain voice contact with the controllers.

Airports would be charged about $150,000 for the development of a model of their facility and about $1,000 per hour for testing, Dorighi said.

However, the test center is not expected to be able to bolster the FAA's multibillion-dollar effort to upgrade technology in towers and throughout its infrastructure soon, said Barry Scott, manager for the FAA liason office at the Ames Research Center.

"We want to use this [project] to enhance safety and to test new technology," Scott said. "This doesn't play into our [upgrade] plans today, but it will in the future. We have a lot of technology we have to upgrade. But it's like having heart surgery done while you are at work."

The virtual control tower, 25 feet in diameter, has a bank of 12 screens, which display up to 200 moving air and ground vehicles simultaneously by using FirstPlus software from Raytheon Systems Co. The graphics are powered by Silicon Graphics Inc.'s Onyx2 graphics workstation, using 16 processors, six graphics boards and 2G of memory.

The first step in the development of the tower was the implementation of an information-sharing tool called the Surface Movement Advisor, first tested at Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport in 1996, Dorighi said. The airport saved $20 million by establishing precise takeoff and arrival times for planes at gates, she said. But officials decided it was more efficient to create simulated airport conditions than to test at real airports. "We can easily put in a new runway for an airport and measure the impact," Dorighi said.

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