NASA-developed software tool holds potential to open air traffic bottlenecks

A six-month test of the NASA-developed en-route data exchange (EDX) software tool is showing how air traffic controllers could predict aircraft position and potential conflicts 20 minutes in advance

By J.R. Wilson

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — A six-month test of the NASA-developed en-route data exchange (EDX) software tool is showing how air traffic controllers could predict aircraft position and potential conflicts 20 minutes in advance

Not only is this capability substantially better than controllers can anticipate such problems today, but it also offers the potential to alleviate air traffic bottlenecks and improve airline fuel efficiency, NASA officials say.

At the core of the matter is the ability of the NASA EDX tool to deliver flight data to automated air traffic management software much more quickly than existing tools can. Experts conducted the tests from the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.

"The ability to accurately predict aircraft trajectories more than 20 minutes in advance is crucial to the success of air traffic management," according to EDX technical lead Rich Coppenbarger.

"This tool allows automation used for air traffic control decisions to be more accurate, thereby increasing fuel efficiency and system capacity and reducing controller workload," Coppenbarger says. "It has the potential to decrease flight delays by reducing bottlenecks in the system while improving fuel efficiency and reducing controller workload."

NASA Ames researchers monitored more than 1,000 take-offs, landings, and overhead flights near Denver. The tests involved 48 United Airlines Boeing 777 aircraft with EDX software. NASA experts say they chose the 777 because of the aircraft's state-of-the-art avionics and ability to handle datalink information quickly and efficiently.

EDX delivers 32 types of data from the airplane to air traffic controllers using NASA's Center-TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control) Automation System (CTAS). Some data, including aircraft speed, weight, flight plans, and weather conditions, are processed immediately; the rest are stored for later analysis.

"Field experience has shown that controllers must have absolute confidence in the accuracy of underlying trajectory predictions in order to utilize our automation effectively," Coppenbarger says. "EDX provides that level of trust by providing a wealth of accurate and timely data."

Next, researchers will evaluate EDX's capabilities for future application to real-time flight plan development and modification, a potentially important step in the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration's Free Flight initiative, which will enable pilots to choose their own flight paths in real time.

The EDX and CTAS tools are being developed under the Advanced Air Transportation Technologies (AATT) project, a part of NASA's Aviation Systems Capacity Program.

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