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$3 Million NASA Award Given to Study Air Traffic

Plane illustration

CSULB has received a four-year, $3 million NASA award to establish a consortium of universities and private industries to collaborate on a project that will look at the possibility of increasing air traffic up to three times without building new airports.

The project is titled “Metrics for Operator Situation Awareness, Workload, and Performance in Automated Separation Assurance Systems,” and CSULB is the lead in the consortium that includes faculty from Cal State Northridge, San Jose State and Purdue University along with The Boeing Company. Boeing is creating the ability for consortium members to work together and run simulations of aircraft flying in designated airspace sectors via the Internet.

“This grant is the result of the Vision 100-Century of Aviation Reauthorization Act, signed into law in 2003, which led to the formation of the Joint Planning and Development Office,” said Tom Strybel, CSULB psychology professor and co-principal investigator for this project along with Kim Vu, an assistant professor of psychology at the university. “This office is charged with developing the vision for the 2025 Next Generation Air Traffic System, or NGATS, and the research required to achieve that vision.

“With this grant, we are interested in evaluating the impact of new automation concepts and technologies on pilots and air traffic controllers. The goal of NGATS is to increase air traffic capacity (more airplanes in the sky) without building more airports,” Strybel added. “The FAA forecasts that the demand for flying will increase significantly over the next two decades, and it hopes to increase airspace capacity and put more airplanes in the sky by getting them closer together without sacrificing safety.”

The obvious question is how many more planes?

“The NGATS vision is to accommodate three times the current number of aircraft,” Strybel pointed out. “They expect new technology will allow greater efficiency, but it has been my experience that even when technology works, it is not always the panacea we had expected.  Sometimes the introduction of new technology creates more work.”

Currently, according to Strybel, planes must have a cushion of three to five miles laterally and 1,000-3,000 feet vertically.

As a psychologist, Strybel’s focus will be on two areas–workload and situation awareness among air traffic controllers and pilots.

“We want to measure workload, or mental effort, and determine if it is manageable under new automation concepts,” Strybel said. “Workload is always an issue for air traffic controllers and pilots because of the demands made on them. Situation awareness is being aware of the information in your environment, understanding it, making good predictions on the basis of that information and being able to anticipate future events. Pilots call this ‘being ahead of the aircraft’ and air traffic controllers call it ‘having the picture.’”

To illustrate how these concepts will be studied, the consortium selects an airspace such as Dallas-Fort Worth for which it has a simulation airspace model and then creates a traffic scenario. Pilots will “fly” in the airspace, and air traffic controllers will manage traffic using desktop computers with networked simulation software. At CSULB, these simulations will be run in the Center for the Study of Advanced Aeronautic Technologies, which currently has 24 high-end workstations donated by The Boeing Company.

“Consortium members can be in different locations but can participate together and collaborate with NASA Ames Research Center, which developed the simulation software and agreed to share it with the consortium,” said Strybel. “For example, one pilot at CSULB could be flying an aircraft arriving into Dallas-Fort Worth. Pilots on other workstations, possibly at other universities, would be flying either arriving, departing or en route aircraft. All pilots would be communicating with air traffic controllers over the Internet. Air traffic controllers will manage traffic on their own workstations.”

With these simulations, the consortium can evaluate new automation concepts to determine their impact on workload, situation awareness, capacity and safety.

“Some people have said that, from a situation awareness standpoint, if you give pilots an air traffic controller-type of display, they should be more aware because they can see more of what’s going on in the airspace,” Strybel noted, “but this display might require that pilots spend more time looking down at the display instead of out the window, possibly reducing situation awareness.

“Another possible impact of automation is that some responsibilities of air traffic controllers could be transferred to pilots,” he continued. “Presently, air traffic controllers are responsible for maintaining separation among all aircraft; pilots must obtain air traffic controller approval for their initial flight plan and any changes to their flight plan. With new automation tools, some responsibility for separation could be transferred to pilots to alleviate some workload on the air traffic controller and giving them more time to manage traffic flow in the sector. These are the types of issues we will be examining.”

The consortium will be developing new ways of measuring pilot and air traffic controller situation awareness and workload.

“I would like to be able to, by developing and validating these metrics, let the results themselves show how new automation technologies will affect pilots and controllers in terms of their job performance,” said Strybel.