FAA's new test center opens amid high expectations
BY John F. Infanger, editorial director
ATLANTIC CITY, NJ — Blame the Boeing 777, or give it the credit. The 777, and a new generation of airliners expected to be developed in the years ahead, will place extraordinary loads on runways around the world. Few airports are prepared.
However, the FAA's new pavement testing center which opened recently at its Technical Center here may not only bring about the development of a new generation of runway designs, it could very well help predict when the pavement will fail. That is the intent.
For those who may have thought that pavement design was a high-tech field that was leading edge — well, it's not. At least not until now.
In the 1960s, the introduction of the 747 presented similar challenges as the 777 in terms of a new generation of load factors. Testing procedures called for using loaded carts running up and down a runway.
"They could never make sure it was going down the same path," explains Satish Agrawal, Ph.D., FAA's manager of airport technology R&D. "The Russians did almost the same thing. Airbus is using a little bit more refined procedures, but is still using loaded carts.
"But you can never come up with the kind of solutions we are seeking. You have to run it until the pavement fails and run it in a consistent fashion."
Central components of the new center include a 1.4 million pound vehicle, fully computerized, that can put various load factors on as many as nine different variations of load surfaces, both concrete and asphalt. The surface itself has a bed of three soils that represent all the soils in the world, says Agrawal. Paved surfaced can be torn up and replaced.
"We will be able to predict the life of the pavement, which we could never do before," he says, while also being able to predict failure rates.
Each year, FAA spends an average $1.3 billion/year on pavement; industry kicks in another $700,000 on average. The test center is expected to lead to better pavement design and subsequently a corresponding cost savings.
Boeing funded one-third the cost of the center; an industry group is monitoring its results.