NASA develops software to assist nation's air traffic controllers

NASA has developed two applications to help air traffic controllers at busy airports.
The agency estimates that the software can save $800 million a year in air traffic control
management costs.


The NASA software, Traffic Management Adviser and Final Approach Spacing Tool, will
make it easier for air traffic controllers to track and direct aircraft, said Heinz
Erzberger, senior scientist for air traffic management at NASA’s Ames Research Center
in Moffett Field, Calif.


“The software saves an average of two minutes per flight, saving money for
airlines and passengers,” said Erzberger, original developer of the tools, which are
part of the Center Terminal Radar Approach Control Automation System (CTAS). The CTAS team
in July received a 1998 NASA Software of the Year Award.


The Traffic Management Adviser can help managers at an airport establish a flow rate of
air traffic that closely matches the capacity of that airport, Erzberger said. The Final
Approach Spacing Tool suggests landing sequences and runway assignments to the controller,
minimizing delays and increasing landing rates by about 10 percent during peak periods, he
said.


NASA designed CTAS as a human-centric application so it can adapt to controllers and
unplanned events. The software refreshes trajectories for aircraft and updates its
advisories every four to 12 seconds in conjunction with radar sweeps. 


It also integrates any data input by the controller, Erzberger said.


The Federal Aviation Administration is using both CTAS tools at the Dallas-Fort Worth
International Airport, considered one of the world’s busiest.


FAA will deploy the Traffic Management Adviser at seven air traffic control centers and
the Final Approach Spacing Tool at five to nine airports within the next two to three
years, said Dallas Denery, deputy chief of Ames’ Aviation Systems Research Technology
and Simulation Division.


“Cost to FAA of implementing the first two tools is about $600 million over an
eight-year period, an effort that began in 1996,” Erzberger said.


Ames, NASA’s Center of Excellence for Information Technology, began the CTAS
project in 1991. An early version of the system is running at the Atlanta, Denver, Los
Angeles and Miami international airports, Erzberger said.


“The entire CTAS effort is a successful partnership among NASA, FAA, its
controllers and contract companies,” said Michelle Eshow, CTAS software development
group leader. “The software design is flexible enough that we can add new tools
without extensive rewriting of computer code.”


CTAS can incorporate more tools beyond Traffic Management Adviser and Final Approach
Spacing Tool, Erzberger said.


The software has more than 500,000 lines of code written in C and C++ and runs on a
network of Sun Microsystems Ultra workstations, including 167-MHz Sun Ultra 170s with 128M
of RAM and 2G storage running SunSoft Solaris 2.5, said Harry Swenson, chief of Ames’
System Operations Development Branch.


A team of 70 Ames researchers are working on next-generation CTAS software and
concepts, including Descent Adviser.


“It improves the fuel efficiency of aircraft descents into large airports,”
Erzberger said.


The research team also is working on the next version of Final Approach Spacing Tool.


The upgrade will provide speeds and heading advisories to help air traffic controllers
space aircraft on final approach, further increasing capacity, Erzberger said.  

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