NASA/FAA's FutureFlight Central brings the vision of virtual reality to future airport and system planning
By John Boyce, Contributing Editor
MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA — Your imagination is held, even boggled, when abruptly you are moving dizzyingly across runways and taxiways. The tower is in motion. It stops, somewhat comically, on an active runway before returning to its original position.
Now, common sense tells you that if you walk down the stairs and out of the building, you'll be in a courtyard, not on airport grounds. But you want to believe that what you are seeing is real, that you are in a tower overlooking a major international airport.
Welcome to FutureFlight Central (FFC), a highly sophisticated simulator — the world's first full-scale, three-dimensional simulated airport control tower. It gives a full, 360-degree high resolution view of the airport, as in a real tower. It has air traffic controllers and ramp controllers in real-time communication with pseudo, but nonetheless human, pilots. They can manage some 200 moving aircraft and ground vehicles at once.
Basically designed to address the nation's aviation capacity problems, the two-story FFC is an airport planning tool that allows airports and airport users such as airlines to investigate and study new ideas, technologies, and procedures that would be impossible or, at best, difficult to achieve at a fully operational airport.
The research facility is jointly though not equally funded by NASA and FAA. It is located at the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field in this Silicon Valley city some 30 miles south of San Francisco.
The potential for testing future air and space technologies in a risk-free, virtual environment indeed seem limitless, but as the grand opening in December of the $10 million facility made clear, the future is now. It is real.
FutureFlight Central is open for business.
SIMULATING WHAT'S TAKING PLACE
The facility can "build" or simulate any airport in the world; its physical configuration, current procedures, taxi routes, radar, various weather conditions, and other pertinent operational data. It can then insert any technology, improvement, or operational change an airport is contemplating into the live-action simulation and test its feasibility in a realistic but controlled environment.
For instance, if an airport is considering building a new runway, as San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is, FFC can create a runway in all possible configurations to see what works and, indeed, if anything works.
"Airports are going to love this," says Nancy Dorighi, the facility's operations manager. "It's going to help them make better decisions and figure out the best way to spend their money....
"Basically, we're simulating or modeling what's taking place. Then we will measure the impact of things you might try. You might have a base operation of an airport, how it's all working, then insert some technology or procedural change and measure it again: is it better or worse and is it worth spending the money? That's the whole idea."
Any airport or aviation organization can contract with FFC to recreate or model its particular operation and then "lease" the facility to flesh out and study a technology or idea. "If an airport came to us," Dorighi says, "and wanted us to develop a new model it would take about three months to develop. The investment for that by itself, depending on the complexity of the airport, is about $150,000. Then the time spent in the facility to run tests — we call that occupancy time — is $1,000 an hour." Dorighi says it took $150,000 to model SFO, the airport NASA chose as a demonstration model for FFC.
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