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NASA Developed Technology Aims to Save Airlines Fuel and Time

28 Mar 2017, 3:53 pm

[Credit: NASA/David C. Bowman]

NASA’s focus is space exploration but over the last several months, the agency has been flying airplanes to test software that could reduce travel delays from weather or congestion with a new cockpit-based air traffic management tool. The project recently concluded after a month of flying planes throughout the state of Washington, racking up enough air miles to circle the planet four times.

The prototype hardware and software is designed to automatically provide pilots with more precise spacing information on approach into a busy airport so that more planes can safely land in a given time. The technology is intended to help airplanes spend less time in the air, save money on fuel, and reduce engine emissions – all while improving schedule efficiency to help passengers arrive on time.

Even four minutes of flight time shaved off of each leg of a trip made by an airline could result in massive fuel and time savings, according to researchers. The software provided similar results as flight tests continued in the northeast corridor. A second round of flight tests was recently completed to ensure readiness for operational use by partner airlines.

“Up until now there has been no way to deliver comprehensive wind and congestion data to pilots in near-real time,” said Tom Kemp, Alaska Airlines’ vice president of operations in Seattle, Washington.  Developers say the new technology won’t require changes to the roles and responsibilities of pilots or air traffic controllers, so the benefits of avoiding weather and congestion delays would start producing benefits right away.

[Credit: Boeing]

Using a Boeing 757 and Dassault Falcon business jet provided by Honeywell, and a Boeing 737 provided by United Airlines, the aircraft flew together above Washington state during 18 days of tests spread over a month. Early analysis indicates the tool – known as Flight Deck Interval Management – worked as expected. Additional data review will take some time, but for now the research team involving NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia and Ames Research Center in California, along with Boeing, Honeywell and United, are celebrating the successful flight test campaign. Additional software, known as TASAR, was previously tested on smaller aircraft, a Piaggio P180 Avanti.

[Credit: NASA/David Wing]

“Our flight test team numbered more than 30 people, which is considered a very large team, and we functioned so well together. When we were in a team meeting, you could not tell who worked for which agency or company. Together we were focused on achieving our goals, which we did,” said Leighton Quon, NASA’s manager of the Airspace Technology Demonstrations project.

In addition to the NASA-led research team, officials representing the Federal Aviation Administration, the Electronic Navigation Research Institute of Japan, the Air Line Pilots Association, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, and Virgin America participated in or observed portions of the flight test campaign.

For WeatherNation: Meteorologist Mace Michaels

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