A brainstorming machine

Raytheon Co. has completed a prototype for a simulation and modeling system that eventually will help NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration evaluate revolutionary concepts aimed at improving traffic flow.

A brainstorm-measurement machine, the NASA-commissioned tool will test ideas to determine their impact on the National Airspace System (NAS). Raytheon's goal is to provide a "plug-and-play" capability that enables users to plug in a scenario, watch it play out and evaluate its effects on the national airspace system.

Until now, NASA, which assists the FAA with air traffic modeling, has used numerous systems to test new concepts. But to fully evaluate an idea, NASA needs to see its impact systemwide, which is difficult because most of its models operate independently. The agency has had to work in a piecemeal fashion, plugging data from one model into another. The new system, by providing an architectural framework that is integrated and expandable, will give the FAA a broader view of air traffic management by seeing how different models work together.

"We typically have existing models...that focus on specific functions," said Karlin Roth, aerospace modeling operations officer at NASA's Ames Research Center in California. "We're trying to bring together existing or new models to better seamlessly represent the airspace system."

NASA awarded contracts to Raytheon and Computer Sciences Corp. for the Air Traffic Management System Development and Integration program in March 2000 to aid the integration of its products at the FAA. Under the program, valued at $150 million, the two companies compete for individual task orders.

In October 2001, Raytheon won the $9.5 million simulation system job, which is divided into four phases ending in June 2004. The company recently finished the first round and a prototype that demonstrates the plug-and-play approach.

"This type of activity is very important for the NAS and where it's going," said Lillian Ryals, director of air traffic management operations and performance for the Center for Advanced Aviation System Development at Mitre Corp., a nonprofit organization that performs federally funded research.

A steady surge in airspace congestion prompted NASA to turn to the technology. Along with the FAA, the agency is exploring various ways to increase capacity.

"Perhaps there was an interest in this [before], but not an urgent need," Roth said. "We were approaching gridlock [before Sept. 11], and we're coming back again. We are trying to plan ahead."

The FAA helped NASA set the operational requirements for the program. "As they come up with a new idea, they want to be able to test it," said Pauline Froemberg, Raytheon's program manager for the simulation system.

To get the models interacting, Raytheon adopted the Pentagon's High Level Architecture, which is being fielded to ensure that all military simulation systems are interoperable. The architecture lays out the basic rules that behavior models should follow and defines the interfaces through which they can interact.

"We're leveraging the [Defense Department's] modeling and simulation environment, figuring they've made a good investment there," Froemberg said.

The agency is using the technology to build a system that runs its models together — including those for airplanes, airports and air traffic control centers — and enables data exchange.

Free Flight, the FAA's dramatic new approach to air traffic management, is an example of where this system could work. Testing various Free Flight tools, which make changes across NAS, now takes multiple models. "This should make it easier," Froemberg said. For instance, the agency could check whether changing a route would decrease fuel consumption, or whether giving controllers a new technology would impact pilots' workloads.


Air Traffic modeling

The Federal Aviation Administration and NASA test air traffic management models in four phases:

Phase 1: Develop prototype of "plug-and-play" simulation system.

Phase 2: Pull together existing models and run them using High Level Architecture. Evaluate performance measurements for delays and fuel consumption. Begin studying the National Airspace System.

Phase 3: Look at new concepts, such as Free Flight. Add more models and more detail to existing models. Conduct benefits analysis.

Phase 4: Test more concepts and perform more evaluations.


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