One of the challenges once you start your descent is the congestion of all the arriving airplanes for the same airport. They all have to once again get merged into an organized order and slow down for the final approach and landing. This "compresses" the traffic into a tight bunch of aircraft trying to land. The first Air Traffic Management (ATM) Technology Demonstration (ATD-1) will demonstrate the ability to make the best arrival schedule to accommodate everyone. (Yes, sometimes we nest acronyms into acronyms – more confusing to look at, but faster to say and type once you know what they mean!). Three NASA-developed technologies will be integrated into ATD-1:
- Advanced scheduling based on more accurate position information from aircraft, using ADS-B, will make the best arrival schedule to accommodate everyone.
- Controller tools will be integrated with the scheduling tools to help keep aircraft spaced properly and on schedule.
- Advanced cockpit instrumentation and information will allow the pilots to maintain their proper position and safe spacing in the arrival stream of aircraft without occupying unneeded space.
Together, these tools will bring your flight to the runway landing on schedule and SARDA will once again help find the best path for your plane to make its way into its arrival gate.
Even some of these new technologies could use additional information from time to time. When the winds at an airport begin to change, the runways used for takeoff and landing may have to be switched. For example, all the airplanes may have to start landing from the north when they were landing from the east. The Runway Configuration Manager (RCM) is a tool that will give information to either the operators or potentially some of the other automated scheduling tools when the airport setup needs to be changed. With enough advance notice, the
airplanes can be directed to the new runways without wasting time and fuel turning around on the airport taxiways or changing directions in the air.
Additionally, there are various weather issues that could happen in one small area that can affect the airline operations throughout the country. In San Francisco, stratus is the marine layer or "fog" that the Bay Area sees during the summer months. Because the layer can obscure the pilot’s view of the airport during landing, the aircraft must fly an instrument-guided approach. Currently, when there's fog like this, planes have to land single-file into the San Francisco airport (SFO), as opposed to when it is clear and planes can approach and land in pairs, almost side by side. NASA has developed a computer tool we call SFO Stratus that helps advise the FAA System Command Center, where the nation's "coaches calling the plays" for the whole national system are located. With the tool advisories, they can make more accurate decisions on when to let airplanes around the country leave for San Francisco so that by the time the planes arrive the fog will have lifted and they can use the more efficient side-by-side arrivals. Without the tool, the FAA System Command Center may send too many planes too early or perhaps might hold planes back all over the country, unnecessarily causing delays to you and me during our travels.
8) When will all this affect me?
(Click to view answer)
Leighton: Technologies such as the SFO Stratus tool were actually being tested in the field by the FAA in the 2011 summer season. During this test phase there should be some benefit for the whole system including travelers. Each of the other technologies is in various stages of development. The PDRC is about to make its way into field testing for the first time. EDA, TBAS, SARDA and the components of ATD-1 have seen extensive testing in NASA's own simulation labs. This is typically the step right before trying them in the real world. There are numerous other technologies in early stages of development and experiments by researchers, not to mention the ideas yet to be thought of by our innovative staff.
Permanent implementation of the tools will be the responsibility of our partner agency, the FAA. It operates air transportation every day of the year so that we can fly to the multitude of places we want to or need to go, and will build and implement the actual Next Generation system of the future.
These NASA videos of current air traffic on a typical or atypical day best illustrate why NextGen will be so helpful. Managing air traffic is an extremely complex process. NextGen's new technologies and ways of doing things will help keep the U.S. air transportation system in smooth working order. Video credit: NASA/Smithsonian Air and Space Museum
› Read 8 Questions About NextGen, Part 2
Jessica Culler, 650-604-4789
NASA Ames Research Center