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ODU Researchers Applying M&S to Help Improve Air Traffic Management

As the country's aviation industry wrestles with the quest to make air travel more efficient, an immense roadblock is the sheer cost of testing any type of efficiency innovation.

The cost of acquiring a plane and flying it through already full airspace to pilot-test concepts of getting from point A to point B more efficiently is a huge undertaking. Modeling and simulation is a key technology in safely and effectively evaluating such concepts.

Researchers at Old Dominion University's Virginia, Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC) have conducted several research projects with NASA Langley to develop M&S architectures and enhance NASA simulation tools used in evaluating new concepts in air-traffic management. One such tool is NASA's Airspace and Traffic Operations Simulation (ATOS). This summer, under a recently awarded $66,000 project, VMASC researchers are working closely with NASA researchers to further enhance these simulation capabilities.

One focus of the project is to investigate alternative approaches for in-flight testing of distributed air traffic management concepts. "A critical component in almost all distributed air-traffic control concepts is the use of ADS-B, (Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast), a term that refers to advanced aircraft surveillance technology, but also the in-cockpit avionics instrument that implements the technology," said Yiannis Papelis, research professor at VMASC, and principal investigator for the ODU project.

However, ADS-B will not become widely available until such concepts are proven, yet in-flight testing of such concepts requires ADS-B. This creates a classic chicken-and-egg problem.

"One way to proceed is by developing an alternative technology that can provide the benefits of ADS-B but with reduced cost for use in one-of-a-kind flight tests," said Papelis. One such approach is to develop a computer model of ADS-B that can be used in the cockpit in lieu of the real hardware. The problem is that simulating ADS-B requires knowing the location, movement and intent of aircraft in the vicinity, information that without a real ADS-B is not available.

Researchers have identified two critical technologies that can provide a viable solution to this problem, namely in-flight Internet and the proliferation of "Electronic Flight Bags" (EFBs). An EFB is a specialized computer (such as a laptop or tablet) that can be used in a modern cockpit to assist pilots with a variety of tasks. Most importantly, certain EFBs can link to the on-board avionic systems, and thus gain access to information required for the ADS-B simulation. Software running on an EFB can then utilize in-flight Internet to share among participating aircraft all the data necessary to simulate ADS-B. The net result is that the distributed surveillance functions of ADS-B can be simulated by using in-flight Internet at a fraction of the cost of using actual ADS-B. This will facilitate future testing of advanced air traffic management concepts.

The focus of this summer's project is to demonstrate this approach by using a flight-ready EFB and associated avionics hardware in conjunction with NASA's simulation of the national airspace. "By demonstrating the integration of actual flight hardware into the simulation environment, we significantly reduce the risk of incorporating the same hardware into commercial airliners and pave the way for a flight test that utilizes an ADS-B simulation," said Papelis. Working with Papelis is Menion Croll, a VMASC senior project scientist and project co-investigator. Papelis and Croll are working closely with NASA researchers to obtain the hardware, integrate it into ATOS, develop new or existing models and conduct a demonstration of the approach.