Shaving a few minutes off flight times mightn't seem like that big a deal, but with tens of thousands of aircraft jetting across the skies each day, the fuel and carbon emission savings would quickly add up if more direct routes were taken more often. NASA is looking to encourage exactly that with software for air carriers that monitors conditions like weather and flight paths to suggest faster routes. Virgin America and Alaska Airlines have answered the boarding call and will put the system through its paces over the next three years.
Dubbed the Traffic Aware Planner (TAP), NASA's software can be loaded onto a tablet computer in the form of an app and hooks up directly to an aircraft's onboard avionics hub, along with the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) receiver and the Internet if the aircraft has it.
From here it monitors things like the aircraft's current position, altitude, flight route, surrounding air traffic and real-time weather conditions, and searches for changes in altitude or routes that can save flight time and, in effect, fuel and carbon emissions. Equipped with this knowledge, pilots can make more informed "traffic aware strategic aircrew requests" (TASARs), or route change requests. In turn, this will make it simpler for air traffic controllers to approve such requests.
"The system is meant to help pilots make better route requests that air traffic controllers can more often approve," says the aptly named David Wing, TASAR project lead at NASA. "This should help pilots and controllers work more effectively together and reduce workload on both sides from un-approvable requests."
The system has already been tested aboard a Plaggio P180 Avanti and was used to request a route change between Virginia and Kentucky, which was approved by air traffic control and saved four minutes of flight time. Further testing was then carried out to ready the technology for use by commercial airliners.
"Up until now there has been no way to deliver comprehensive wind and congestion data to pilots in near-real time," says Tom Kemp, Alaska Airlines’ vice president of operations. "TASAR is a 'super app' that will give our pilots better visibility to what’s happening now versus three hours earlier when the flight plan was prepared."
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