Virtual airport program helps FAA test runway configurations

Virtual airport program helps FAA test runway configurations

Award-winning simulator lets controllers solve problems on a computer rather than on the fly

By Tony Lee Orr

GCN Staff

Only air traffic controllers can tell which runway configuration is real and which is an illusion using a two-story airport simulator designed by NASA.

Future Flight Central, designed to create virtual airports, permits air traffic controllers and planners to test new airport designs and runway modifications, said Nancy Dorighi, who manages the facility at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif.


FAA is using NASA-developed Future Flight Central to test airport modifications.



The facility is a walk-in, full-scale 360-degree simulator that realistically tests runways, landings, ground traffic and a number of other factors in the safety of a computerized world, she said.

Virtual overtime

The San Francisco International Airport is using the facility to identify visibility problems associated with tower locations being considered for a new runway, Dorighi said.

'The air traffic controllers really liked it a lot,' Dorighi recalled. 'They say, 'Give me a headset, and I'll go to work.' It's just like being on overtime.'

Future Flight Central won an award in June for being the most significant contribution to aviation safety and efficiency in the western United States from the Federal Aviation Administration and the Western Regional Air Transport Association of America of Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles International Airport is setting up to use the facility to study procedural changes in the way it uses runways for incoming flights and departures, Dorighi said. LAX also plans to use Future Flight Central to study the routes it uses to taxi airplanes, she said.

Future Flight Central comprises an SGI Onyx2 RealityMonster with 16 250-MHz Mips R10000 processors, 2G of memory and six InfiniteReality2 graphics pipes powering 12 video channels and driving the 12 screens that form the window view, SGI officials said. The system runs Irix Version 6.5.

The Onyx2 processes complex 3-D graphics, video data and imaging in real time, based on air traffic controllers' decisions, Greg Slabodkin, an SGI spokesman said.

The visual information is created based on data provided by 90 Pentium II PCs linked via Fast Ethernet, Dorighi said.

Each airport provides its own database for the simulation, she said. San Francisco's OpenFlight database was used to construct the 3-D model of its airport.



Using the program, controllers identify obstructions, deal with depth perception problems and gate operations experienced during different weather conditions, she said.

'It is a full-scale mock-up of the tower,' Dorighi said. 'They use the same headset as they would use at work and they hear calls from pilots and see planes moving, and see blips on the radar.'

The cost for the initial setup is between $50,000 and $100,000, she said. Costs beyond the setup include development of a test to study an individual airport's plan. The price tag grows the longer the project takes, she said.

But the money lets controllers hit the ground running, skipping the 'spool up time' associated with change, Dorighi said. 'It lets controllers preview the change and basically train.'

Other airports are considering using Future Flight Central to track airplanes on the ground.

'Some are looking at using the tower not so much as an air traffic control tower but as a ramp tower,' she said. 'We can make our tower a ramp tower and let them concentrate on managing the movement of airplanes in gate area.'

A rogue plane leaving the ramp before air traffic controllers are ready to direct it could affect delays, she said.

Future Flight Central would help airport officials optimize the way they manage the entire facility, she said.

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