Modern Skies

NASA’s SMART NAS Will Modernize The U.S. National Airspace System

NASA’s new research project — SMART NAS — aims to accelerate transformation of the U.S. National Airspace System (The NAS). The objective is to create an open-architecture simulator of The NAS, enabling stakeholders — such as airlines, researchers, technology companies and aviation organizations — to connect to the simulator and evaluate new technologies and/or policies with the goal of increasing the capacity, safety and efficiency of the system.

The Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) is the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) program for modernizing the U.S. air traffic management system. NextGen aims to increase capacity, reduce flight delays and provide airlines with greater flexibility, as well as improved safety and security.

However, many industry stakeholders are disappointed by the slow pace at which new capabilities are deployed into The NAS. Airline representatives who reviewed NextGen plans also expressed concerns that airline priorities and capabilities were inadequately addressed in the FAA programs. Some of their specific reservations pertained to the FAA’s simplistic focus on flight planning to the neglect of the other responsibilities and capabilities of flight operations centers (FOCs).

The concept of trajectory-based operations (TBO) offers a good example of the potential for missed opportunity for more rapid deployment at lower cost and risk. Under TBO, airlines and the FAA will negotiate four-dimensional gate-to-gate flight trajectories. The underlying assumption is that technology exists for the flight planning and dispatching in this TBO environment. While this may be a safe assumption, many airlines are concerned about the risk of missing opportunities for broader system improvements by limiting NextGen/FOC interaction to the world of flight planning and dispatching individual flights.

Flight planning is just one of an FOC’s functions that comes under flight management, which along with schedule management and network management, are the three major categories of airline operational control responsibility.

Other industry concerns about NextGen pertain to lack of clear guidance on data and information sharing, little acknowledgement of the lessons learned from two decades of collaborative decision making and no clarity on the rationing of scarce airport and airspace resources in the NextGen environment. All of these issues require investments by the U.S. government and aviation industry, extensive testing of new capabilities and procedures, as well as assurances that data will be safe and secure. Without agreement on these issues and clear indications the U.S. government will fully support its commitments, the promise of NextGen will not be achieved.

NASA’s New Research Project

NASA expects to speed up transformation of the U.S. National Airspace System (The NAS) through its new research project, SMART NAS, to create an open-architecture simulator of The NAS. This will enable airlines, researchers, technology companies and aviation organizations to connect to the simulator and evaluate new technologies and/or policies to help increase the capacity, safety and efficiency of the system.

Airline And Industry Participation

Airlines saw a need to redirect some aspects of the NextGen program and focus it on issues of greater interest to their operations. With their encouragement, the U.S. Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) sponsored a joint government-industry study of the role of FOCs in NextGen.

The group that conducted the JPDO FOC study — including Airlines for America, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, FedEx, IATA, JetBlue, Sabre Airline Solutions® and UPS — recommended that the FAA increase the involvement of FOCs in NextGen planning and implementation activities, including information sharing, collaborative decision making and TBO. It also recommended that the FAA conduct collaborative experiments with FOCs to evaluate data sharing, new capabilities and methods to ration limited NAS resources.

Results from the JPDO FOC study were released in July 2012, and those who conducted the study continue to encourage the FAA to implement their recommendations. However, Sabre Airline Solutions and participating airlines and industry organizations are simply not waiting for the FAA to accelerate the pace of NextGen deployment. In recent years, some airlines, including JetBlue and American Airlines, have worked with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to develop air-traffic management improvements, including conducting live operational tests. Some of the new technologies undergoing testing include Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) and improved re-routing around convective weather.

SMART NAS

The Airspace Systems Program conducts NASA’s basic research and development for air traffic management. As the principal research partner with the FAA in developing NextGen, the program develops new concepts and evaluates them using a suite of fast-time models and human-in-the-loop simulation laboratories. For technologies that show promise, NASA conducts operational evaluations using real data and airline participation during normal operations.

A recent example is the Dynamic Weather Routes (DWR) decision-support tool tested by American Airlines, NASA and the FAA’s Fort Worth Air Route Traffic Control Center in Texas. The airline continues to operate DWR, as it generates savings of several minutes per affected flight.

Airline Involvement In SMART NAS

American Airlines and JetBlue are working closely with NASA and the rest of the SMART NAS research team, offering access to their operational systems and insight into the day-to-day challenges of flying aircraft in the NAS.

The success of decision-support tools, such as DWR, persuaded NASA to develop other capabilities to improve NAS performance. However, current operational testing facilities are limited, typically able to assess only one concept at a time, with one airline and one FAA facility. To demonstrate the technical feasibility and operational benefits of many NextGen concepts such as TBO, the aviation community must be able to conduct operational evaluations on integrated systems across The NAS.

To meet the need for more robust operational testing, NASA initiated a new research project, the Shadow Model Assessment Using Realistic Technologies for the National Airspace System, or SMART NAS.

NASA released the solicitation in May 2013, and Sabre Airline Solutions joined the proposal team led by Robust Analytics. In December 2013, NASA awarded the Robust Analytics team a two-year, US$1.9 million contract to design a system architecture for SMART NAS.

In addition to Sabre Airline Solutions, the Robust Analytics team includes ATAC, Flight Research Associates, IBM Federal Systems, JVN Communications, JetBlue and American Airlines. The Robust Analytics team offers NASA a powerful combination of experience in building enterprise architectures, air traffic modeling and simulation, airline planning and operations, aviation data, and benefit-cost assessments.

What will SMART NAS accomplish for NASA, U.S. airlines and the aviation community?

SMART NAS is an important new component in NASA’s efforts to transform The NAS. Under the transformational NextGen concepts, new air traffic capabilities and technologies need to be demonstrated in an integrated fashion in a real-time environment to gain confidence that they will perform as expected. A “shadow-mode” operational evaluation uses live data feeds from The NAS and its inputs (such as weather, flight plans, airport arrival rates, system constraints, etc.) and runs the entire system, or parts of it, with proposed concepts, air-ground architectures and technologies to test their performance and validate that the assembled technologies work together seamlessly.

Delta Air Lines’ Participation

Delta Air Lines, in conjunction with Airlines for America, American Airlines, FedEx, IATA, JetBlue, Sabre Airline Solutions and UPS, conducted the JPDO FOC study and made several recommendations to the U.S. FAA, including that it involves airline FOCs in NextGen planning and implementation activities.

This capability will allow integrated, real-time and/or fast-time assessment of gate-to-gate operations and their performance using real-world NAS inputs. As envisioned, SMART NAS will allow for plug-and-play of different technologies to operate in combined real, virtual and constructive manners to support a wide range of technology evaluations.

SMART NAS offers the aviation community enhanced capabilities to evaluate improvements to air traffic management. Early applications will likely include TBO, integrated arrival-departure management and assimilation of unmanned aircraft into The NAS. The goal is to accelerate the deployment of aviation technologies for the benefit of aircraft operators, the FAA and the traveling public.

Each member of the Robust Analytics team brings unique capabilities to the SMART NAS partnership. Maryland-based Robust Analytics offers decades of experience in air-traffic management research and development, modeling of aircraft operations and benefit-cost analysis.

IBM Federal Systems brings extensive knowledge of enterprise-scale architectures and data warehousing. ATAC has worked more than 30 years with NASA and the FAA, specializing in data processing and analysis, as well as fast-time modeling for aviation applications. Flight Research Associates supports the NASA Ames Research Center, conducting human-in-the-loop simulation of pilots’ and controllers’ interactions with new technologies. JVN Communications partners with the FAA’s Technical Center in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to conduct operational testing and evaluation on all air-traffic management systems before their deployment into The NAS.

American Airlines and JetBlue offer access to airline operational systems and insight into the day-to-day challenges of flying aircraft in the NAS.

Sabre Airline Solutions provides unparalleled expertise in airline operations, flight planning and aircraft monitoring, as well as AOC software and decision support.

The SMART NAS partners are tasked under the contract with three primary deliverables:

  1. Designing an open-source system architecture for SMART NAS that can satisfy a large set of required performance characteristics, such as flexibility and modularity, as well as evaluate a wide range of current and future aviation technologies;
  2. Conducting a benefits assessment for NASA and the U.S. aviation community as a whole of SMART NAS;
  3. Estimating the 10-year cost of developing and maintaining SMART NAS.

Delta Air Lines’ Participation

Delta Air Lines, in conjunction with Airlines for America, American Airlines, FedEx, IATA, JetBlue, Sabre Airline Solutions and UPS, conducted the JPDO FOC study and made several recommendations to the U.S. FAA, including that it involves airline FOCs in NextGen planning and implementation activities.

The final deliverables are due in December 2015. Until then, the SMART NAS team is working with NASA researchers and aviation partners to design an operational evaluation capability that will support acceleration of the deployment of improvements to the U.S. air transportation system.

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