High-Tech Planning

Feb. 8, 2000


NASA/FAA's FutureFlight Central brings the vision of virtual reality to future airport and system planning

By John Boyce, Contributing Editor

February 2000

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.

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.

The brainchild of the late Stanton R. Harke, its project manager, the FFC grew out of the installation at Atlanta Hartsfield of another NASA-Ames/FAA collaborative development, Surface Movement Advisor (SMA), an airport information sharing system (see sidebar). Installed in 1996, SMA has improved ground operations in Atlanta to the extent that Delta Airlines is saving one full minute per taxi operation — an estimated cost savings of $16-21 million a year, says FAA.

But SMA's success wasn't the prompt for the research center, it was the awkwardness and difficulty of installing it in a fully operational airport with 2,500 operations per day.

"At the beginning of the program," the FAA's NASA-Ames liaison manager Barry Scott says, "we had anticipated fielding that system (SMA) at 13 different facilities around the country. The intent was to have this facility where we could do all the testing rather than take a new technology into a live environment. That's like having heart surgery while you're at work."

Yuri Gawdiak, NASA Ames's surface technologies chief, was intimately involved in the installation at Atlanta. "We had to install that (SMA) in a live, Level V tower with very little operational testing," he says. "Imagine a live tower like this and you're bringing in prototype equipment, trying to set it up, and trying to debug your alpha and beta sort of software codes in it.

"So, instead of trying to do that in a live tower ... we would prefer to bring it here, debug the operations, (take into account) all the human factors and the other little details you don't get to get into when you're in full operation."

Jim McClenahen, the air traffic control analyst for FFC, says "If we'd had this facility to test SMA prior to taking it to Atlanta, it would probably have cut the installation and operation time by 50 percent.... We finished SMA in 1996 after about 18 months. Then it took from then until now, with about four major changes, to get it to the point where Delta is saving over a minute in taxi out time per flight. We could have cut that development time down to less than two years with (testing in) this facility."

There's really not a facility like FFC in the world, Gawdiak concludes, where a technology can be introduced and tested at an airport "with a full spectrum of operations as we can do here. We can change the weather, we can change the load, we can change the numbers of people."

Dorighi says FAA, which funded 25 percent of FFC to NASA's 75 percent, is ready to provide funding to airports interested in doing studies for airport improvement at FFC.

"What I understand," Dorighi says, "is that one ready mechanism of FAA funding would be AIP, Airport Improvement Funds. That could be used to fund a study if it was in their (the airports's) master plan. All they would have to do is amend their master plans and be eligible for funding."

After the initial setup fee is paid, "the nice thing is," points out McClenehen, "that once you build a database it's always built. To go back in and modify it is relatively inexpensive." Operators, with models already in the library, would simply be charged the $1,000 an hour occupancy rate. The setup fee is contingent on the complexity of the airport and what it wants to do. Smaller airports, for instance, could only want one portion of their airport modeled and that would be less expensive.

"The beautiful thing about this is," McClenehen says, "we can go to a small airport and we don't have to give them the full 360-degree image. We can give them three windows and they can accomplish what they want for a lot cheaper."

In addition to test results, Dorighi says the center plans to offer customers a video presentation of their research results to take back to their decisionmakers. "It's a good advocacy tool," she says, "showing the simulation they conducted, the data, tables, statistical results, as well as the video clips and audio clips. This can be useful for building consensus at the airport."