Dissecting NextGen: a look inside the FAA’s NIEC

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A next-generation air transport system's avionics component should not be tested in real time - nor should new procedures for the National Airspace System (NAS). That is why the US Federal Aviation Administration created its NextGen integration and evaluation capability (NIEC).

Located at the agency's William J Hughes technical centre at Atlantic City international airport, the NIEC is government and industry's one-stop shopping choice to test anything from new warning systems on air traffic controller displays to how pilots will eventually fly alongside unmanned aircraft and their ground-based operators.

Elements of the laboratory, which has been open for business since June 2010, include a simulated air traffic control tower with a 270° "outside" view (eventually to be 360°), terminal and en route air traffic controller workstations, unmanned aircraft system ground stations, desktop computer "pseudo" pilot workstations and a fixed-base cockpit simulator for human-in-the-loop studies.

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 ©Rex Features
A ground control station for the General Atomics Predator is integrated into the NIEC

Feeding the various simulators with realistic or real data are a variety of home-grown hardware and software suites that bring in weather, communications or surveillance data from other FAA laboratories or from the actual NAS.

"The reason we built this lab is to give the opportunity for principal investigators to take a NextGen technology and introduce it so you can see the ripple effect across the NAS," says Hilda DiMeo, NextGen and operations planning director for the centre.

Ongoing or completed projects demonstrate the capabilities much better than any brochure. This summer the NIEC will continue testing of an FAA project to determine what tools controllers would need to someday "man" control towers from remote locations. During two simulation sessions, investigators and engineers have progressively built the technologies and procedures that are part of the "staffed next generation tower" project.

Elements of the project include a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-developed traffic information display system and tower flight data management system (an electronic version of paper flight strips) for controllers, and a variety of front- and back-end systems that the FAA built to allow controllers to see aircraft on the tower displays and out of the simulated tower cab windows. Standard procedure is to bring in one group of FAA controllers to develop the scenarios and a second group to take part in the simulated scenarios.

CAMERA VIEW OF OPERATIONS

A new element this summer will be the inclusion of a camera view of operations at Dallas-Fort Worth international airport. Controller participants in the NIEC will use a joystick and other controllers to steer the camera to zoom in and out. The end-to-end capability of the facility will allow for a gate-to-gate simulation if need be, with traffic seen first on controller screens, then from the tower cab, then to the screens of terminal and en route controllers and finally to the destination tower cab.

A simulation later this year will use a level 4 fixed-base flight training device at the NIEC as part of a National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) project to help determine how existing or new auxiliary avionics - in the form of an electronic flight bag - could help with the safety of transoceanic flights.

The one-week study will include at least two airline crews who will fly simulated 4h moonless night missions from Miami to Lima in Peru to investigate methods of displaying satellite-based weather in the cockpit.

Called "weather technology in the cockpit for transoceanic human over the loop", the project's goal is to help the FAA determine the most cost-effective and usable methods of bringing satellite-linked severe weather data to airline pilots in remote ocean regions. The June 2009 crash of Air France flight 447 over the South Atlantic on a flight from Brazil to Paris brought new emphasis to the problem.

The fixed-base simulator will use an Airbus A320 cockpit with sidestick, rudder pedals, flight management system and ACARS thermal printer, but with reconfigurable displays featuring touchscreen controls to model other avionics and hardware. A class 2 electronic flight bag will also be used to display colour graphical weather data.

BASIC QUESTION

Arguably the most intense use of the NIEC to date has been from the UAS community, both within the FAA and the broader government and industry community. The basic question being addressed is what it takes to fly an unmanned air vehicle in national airspace.

Avionics, both in the air and on the ground are an obvious piece of the puzzle.

With six studies completed, officials are accumulating experience. One piece of software kit - a "stop light" - was developed for a study looking into how military UAS controllers and FAA air traffic controllers could better co-ordinate occasions where a remotely piloted vehicle must traverse civil airspace en route to a practice area.

Simulations use actual or software-simulated UAS ground control stations integrated into the NIEC as well as links to various NAS elements for the human-in-the-loop studies. To date, there are three ground control stations integrated into the NIEC: the AAI Shadow 200, the General Atomics Predator and the Boeing ScanEagle.

For the Cherry Point Marine Corps air station simulation with the Shadow 200, the FAA developed a traffic light indicator for controller displays based on the projected path of the unmanned aircraft vehicle ahead in time.

The idea was to give controllers a light-coded alert that would provide ample time to make UAV flightpath corrections during a certain airspace transition to avoid civil aircraft not in contact with air traffic controllers. As with a traffic light, a green indicator on the screen signalled a nominal transition: yellow indicated a potential collision concern with other aircraft, and red an imminent hazard.

As with the tower simulations, the UAS efforts are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Along with human-in-the-loop studies with a flight management system-equipped Shadow 200 capable of flying 4D trajectories set for later this year, the NIEC will also host an operational assessment of "multi-UAS" operation focused on Victorville, California.

Along with the NIEC tower simulator and Predator UAS ground station, the simulation will introduce an AeroVironment Raven UAS, Boeing Hummingbird rotorcraft UAS and an airship, all flying in the simulated control tower environment. "The goal is to assess the feasibility of simultaneously operating multiple UAS in a joint-use military/civilian class D air traffic environment," says the FAA.

Future enhancements to the NIEC include setting up a simulated airline operations centre in which airline representatives will interface directly with air traffic controllers to simulate how to better co-ordination between the two for events - like summertime weather - that traditionally snarl air traffic flow and force tough priority decisions.

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 ©John Croft/Flightglobal
The laboratory includes a simulated air traffic control tower with a 270˚ "outside" view