FutureFlight Revisited

FUTUREFLIGHT REVISITED Update of a NASA/FAA initiative to bring technology to planning By John F. Infanger, Editorial Director September 2001 MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA — In our January/February 2000 issue, we featured the unveiling of...


Update of a NASA/FAA initiative to bring technology to planning

By John F. Infanger, Editorial Director

September 2001

ImageMOUNTAIN VIEW, CA — In our January/February 2000 issue, we featured the unveiling of NASA’s FutureFlight Central in our cover story, entitled "Virtual Planning." We recently revisited the research facility for an update. Current projects involve runway incursions at LAX and projections of a new runway at SFO, and involve airport management, airlines, controllers, pilots, FAA, and NASA.

The FutureFlight Central facility is the airport from a control tower’s perspective, able to take what is the view of the airport and its operations today and project onto its screens what can be tomorrow. It can also be used to make what is today safer.
It is housed in a government-as-usual building — like much of NASA, one cannot tell the level of sophistication that lies within — at the Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, in the heart of the Silicon Valley.
The first floor looks much like a flight training facility, with quaint computer stations and a small class area. Upstairs is the tower, which when running can simulate a lifelike reproduction of any airfield’s activity, whether actual or proposed. It is here that one first gets the sense of the scope of this creation.

What an Airport Can Expect
FutureFlight Central operations manager Nancy Dorighi outlines what it takes to work with the facility to study an individual airport ...

"We’ve done projects for as low as $50,000 and as high as $400,000," she says. "It just depends on whether we’re building the airport model from the ground up, whether we’re doing a lot of days of simulation. Once the model’s built, to come back and repeat or maybe do a different test using the same 3-D database and scenarios would be very minimal. You’ve already done the up front work"
Dorighi estimates that the modeling for the simulation accounts for half the overall project cost.
An airport provides a CAD model, which gives the layout of the airport, accurate dimensions for buildings and runways, etc., says Dorighi. "We would also go to the airport and take high resolution photographs, and would probably ask the airport to provide us with aerial photography, if they had it," she says.
"We have a contract in place for vendors to provide us with the 3-D database. We assemble all these materials and have the vendor build us a 3-D model. That takes about 2 months."
Airports provide arrival/departure and ground activity, and then work with NASA at coordinating pilots and controllers for the actual simulation. The airport then defines the scope of the project.

But there is more to it. The potential for success in FutureFlight Central is the human interaction that interfaces with the technology. There are live pilots; live controllers inputting and reacting as the environment around them unfolds. All of that is then collected and recorded. It is not technology for its own sake, says Nancy Dorighi, the facility’s manager of operations.
"We call it a national resource," says Dorighi. "We’re still trying to convince people of the value of doing human interactive simulation.
"It’s a way to really have more than a realistic assessment of some change that you’re considering, because now you’re including the human and all the voice communication and workload issues that are part of anything an airport might be considering. But it’s also a way to get the buy-in of the end-users, the people that will be impacted by the decisions that are being made.
"I think we’re in the formative years; we’re still trying to get the word out and educate the public. This is the next level of simulation. The industry has never had anything like this before. It’s a new tech for them to use. It was built with taxpayer funds; it’s available. It’s really something that individual airports and airlines couldn’t afford to have put together themselves."

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