FAA lab to explore unmanned aircraft impact, new navigation concepts

FAA opens airspace simulation lab for unmanned aircraft, future air traffic tests

The Federal Aviation Administration this week said it opened a new laboratory where scientists will use computer simulation technology explore how future systems such as unmanned aircraft and new navigation concepts will perform in the agency's future airspace structure. 

The NextGen Integration and Evaluation Capability (NIEC) display area offers what the FAA calls a "futuristic NextGen gate-to-gate picture with advanced data collection to support integration and evaluation of new technologies and concepts. Its ability to combine existing systems with future technologies and capabilities means the NIEC will contribute significantly to the transition to NextGen (Next Generation Air Transportation System)." 

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The technology behind NextGen will ultimately revamp every component of the current national airspace system to meet future demands and avoid gridlock in the sky. 

The FAA says researchers using the  NIEC will explore, integrate and evaluate NextGen concepts, including area navigation (RNAV), trajectory-based operations and  flying unmanned aircraft systems in the national airspace system, the FAA stated. RNAV and trajectory-based technologies are new ways of controlling and integrating air traffic. While the number of permitted unmanned aircraft operations in commercial airspace has tripled since 2007, the FAA says routine drone access to civilian airspace is still possibly years away. 

The lab features an air traffic control simulation area, a cockpit simulator, an unmanned aircraft system suite, a simulated tower cab interior and a multi-purpose display area. The multi-purpose area can be used to show weather and traffic management data, operate as a simulation monitoring station or simulate an airline operations center, the FAA stated. 

The new lab comes on the heals of last week's news that the FAA awarded three massive contracts totaling up to $4.4 billion over 10 years to build out NextGen.

The FAA said Boeing, General Dynamics and ITT were awarded the contracts worth up to $4.4 billion.  Two more contracts are expected under what's known as Systems Engineering 2020 (SE-2020) which is the overarching portfolio of contracts the FAA will award to support the rollout of NextGen.  SE2020 has a ceiling of $7 billion.

Boeing, General Dynamics and ITT will conduct large-scale demonstrations, including the use of aircraft as flying laboratories, to see how NextGen concepts, procedures and technologies can be integrated into the current system, the FAA stated.  

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8   

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