NASA doles out $12M to study advanced aircraft impact on air traffic control

NASA very light jet
NASA this week awarded $12 million worth of research contracts to two companies to study how new aircraft, such as  very light jets, super heavy transports, unmanned airplanes, supersonic transports, vertical and short landing and takeoff (V/STOL) aircraft and private space launches, will impact the nation's air traffic control system.

Raytheon and Sensis will get $6 million contracts each to simulate, model and develop recommendations for how to best manage the safety, flight characteristics and overall impact these mostly futuristic aircraft will have on United States airspace. Some of these aircraft are of course already having an impact on current air traffic systems.

Congressional watchdogs at the Government Accountability Office in May said a ton of work needs to be done by military, federal and civil aviation groups if the rapidly growing unmanned aircraft community is allowed routine access to public airspace.  In a wide-ranging report on the impact of unmanned aircraft on the country's commercial airspace, today called on Congress to create an overarching body within Federal Aviation Administration to coordinate unmanned aircraft development and integration efforts.

 The GAO also called on the FAA to work with the Department of Defense, which has extensive unmanned aircraft experience to issue its program plan.  In addition, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) assesses the security implications of routine unmanned aircraft access to commercial airspace, the GAO said. Even if all issues are addressed, and there are a number of critical problems, unmanned aircraft may not receive routine access to the national airspace system until 2020, the GAO concluded.  

In addition a number of the very light jet-based air taxi services have taken flight in recent years.  And it is expected that in 2009 or 2010 Virgin Galactic and Space Adventures will begin offering weekly suborbital flights of space tourism.

NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate (ARMD), which has as one of its missions' to develop national airspace technology, will direct the research. NASA is collaborating with other US government agencies and industries on the Next Generation Air Transportation System. In a nutshell the work looks to apply satellite-based navigation, surveillance and networking technologies to help meet future air traffic demands.

At a conference on Next Generation requirements last year, NASA said such research will ultimately produce cutting-edge technology that will introduce innovative concepts, tools and technologies to enable revolutionary changes for vehicles that fly in all speed regimes. NASA said: "In the context of NextGen as we talk about having more automation, as we talk about introducing more complexity. We need to understand how does that impact how we think about the safety challenges of the vehicles that will fly within the system; as we talk about more advanced composites and other materials that we introduce into these aircraft, how does that impact how we address the durability and aging properties of those materials? So that program really focuses on looking proactively into the future and understanding the safety challenges not just of today's system, but rather, the system that we are trying to move toward."

For its part, Raytheon said its team will work will augment NASA's Advanced Concept Evaluation System, a fast time simulation model of the National Airspace System, using existing environmental and safety models to quantify how the new air vehicles and operational procedures will impact NextGen. Initially, the team will focus on developing recommendations for future operational procedures, identifying air vehicle characteristics and establishing system level metrics, Raytheon said. .

Sensis will focus on modeling and analysis for quantitatively determining the effect of new vehicle concepts on NextGen and vice-versa.

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