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NASA Grant to ODU Engineers Part of Efforts to Increase Safety, Efficiency of National Airspace

The engineers at NASA Langley Research Center (LaRC) have decades of experience in the field of flight operations and simulation, and are known for their contributions toward making the national airspace safer.

But challenges lie ahead as air travel becomes more prevalent and indispensible. Given the fact that more airports and runways are not being built - and there certainly isn't more sky - new solutions are needed.

NASA has awarded researchers at Old Dominion University through Lockheed Martin a $678,852, one-year project to improve its flight operations simulation and construct a virtual "airport" in which advanced flight and ground operation concepts can be tested.

"NASA wants to be able to experiment with alternative pilot-in-the-loop airborne operations as well as terminal-based ground operations," said Yiannis Papelis, Research Professor and Chief Scientist at ODU's Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC), and project principal investigator.

"Enhancing the existing simulation to accommodate these new capabilities is a big challenge, because the software is very complicated. As a result, it needs to be re-engineered it and re-architected, so that it is possible to introduce physical controls in the simulation - make it kind of like a simulator, but with very advanced computer models of the avionics and flight management systems. In addition to that, NASA asked us to improve the computer model of the airplane so that it can handle landing and taxiing."

Co-PI Brett Newman, a professor in ODU's Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, said the project's main thrust is to provide support for a software product called AirSpace and Traffic Operations Simulation (ATOS), which LaRC created to explore future concepts for air traffic management.

"This software allows for multiple aircraft, both manually controlled and autonomously controlled, to be simulated during airport operations, including phases such as approach and departure, landing and takeoff, and taxi and ground movement," Newman said.

"This simulation can be used to study the effects of modification to traffic patterns, runway usage, separation constraints, traffic management strategy, technology infusion and uninhabited air vehicle integration."

One of the simulations VMASC has developed is a precise rendering of the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, which researchers use to test various aspects of flight simulation. LaRC has asked for that to be included in the work.

"We built a small prototype before this project was awarded," Papelis said. "They were very excited about it, so as part of this larger effort, they wanted us to enhance it and integrate software to display an out-the-window-view in a larger, four-screen setup, in real time, with very high fidelity, including all the runways and lights. In the final system, pilots testing advanced operations concepts will now be able to taxi, take off and land."

The ramifications of this research are immense. Operating under the limitations of the current aviation system, researchers are attempting to determine ways to make it more efficient. Papelis said work is being done in air traffic control to provide real-time arrival information, updated automatically, for each plane.

Use of advanced radar devices that allow much closer spacing between airplanes is an example of concepts that can be tested in such a simulation. This would permit planes to operate in closer proximity to each other during approach and landing - for example, 500 meters instead of the current two miles.

"Effectively, the goal of all this is to increase the efficiency of the national airspace, reduce delays, increase capacity and address what is an anticipated overload beyond what is the case now," Papelis said.

Newman said one of the current bottlenecks to air traffic flows is taxi and ground operations at major airports.

"ATOS will be used to analyze large numbers of aircraft, of varying categories from small to large, moving throughout the airport taxiways and synthesizing improved traffic management concepts," Newman said.

"The models must emulate the motion and handling characteristics and behavior of real aircraft while taxiing. These models should provide the requisite behavior so as not to distract or interrupt the pilot from performing and reacting to situations as they normally would in the real environment."

This article was posted on: November 23, 2010

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