Researchers look to bury current air traffic control network

The current air traffic control system is scary enough without involving probability, statistics, optimization modeling, economics and game theory.

But that's the kind of system researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and University of Texas are looking at. This new system adapts its flight recommendations without human input based on thousands of shifting variables such as weather conditions or current airplane locations and probable routes to reduce flight delays and improve air traffic efficiency.

What the researchers are proposing is no small task either.  In a paper the group said they want to fix a foundation for a comprehensive and fundamental restructuring of the nation's current air traffic control system.  The idea they said is to build an autonomously reconfigurable system capable of adapting rapidly to unforeseen events and disturbances, ranging from daily weather uncertainty, to emergencies and disaster response. And the National Science Foundation has given the group some $2 million to research the system under the NSF's Office of Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation.

Such research will address five particular areas:

  • Developing dynamic reconfiguration of critical physical elements of the air traffic control system
  • Building algorithms and models for air traffic flow management, and airline scheduling and recovery, under irregular operations;
  • Creating a new theory of dynamic and adaptable robustness in large-scale distributed optimization-based ATFM and airline models;
  • Using market-based pricing mechanisms;
  • Constructing a model-based system test bed.

Researchers said they will also look at other ways to lessen delays and flight cancellations. For example, they will consider the possibility of letting airlines barter for slots when one airline can't get a flight off the ground and others could do so. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) provides each airline with a set limit of planes that can take off and land during any given timeframe, researchers said. These slot decisions are based on estimates of what will optimize air traffic flow, taking into consideration imperfect weather predictions, the changing mix of flights airlines wants to move, and other variables for the thousands of flights that crisscross U.S. skies daily. The airlines then choose the flights.

Obviously work needs to be done. Department of Transportation data show flight delays and cancellations have increased nationwide and especially in the New York region. Since 1998, the total number of flight delays and cancellations nationwide has increased 62%, while the number of scheduled operations has increased about 38%.

A Government Accountability Office report recently skewered the FAA's highly touted mind you capacity flight demand management policies stating that while the changes may help reduce flight delays, the collective impact of those actions on reducing flight delays in 2008, especially in the highly congested areas around New York,  is limited.

To address delay and cancellation problems beginning in summer 2008, the FAA is implementing several actions intended to reduce delays that the GAO called  capacity-enhancing initiatives and demand management policies. Capacity-enhancing initiatives are intended to increase the efficiency of existing capacity by reducing delays and maximizing the number of takeoffs and landings at an airport, while demand management policies influence demand through administrative measures or economic incentives.  The FAA has implemented hourly schedule caps on operations at the New York area airports.

Other research into managing air traffic is also under way.  The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in February approved the second phase of artificial intelligence technology that will help automate military and possibly commercial air traffic control.   The Generalized Integrated Learning Architecture (GILA) system, developed by Lockheed Martin's Advanced Technology Laboratories under a $22 million, 48-month contract, is intended to help the Air Force in particular keep airspace operating safely with increased air traffic and the advent of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and other airborne weapons.

Meanwhile NASA recently 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.

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