Future Shock

FAA Tech Center tests tomorrow's technology

August 1, 1995

New technology does not appear today in the cockpit of an aircraft — much less in an air traffic controller's radar console — until it has paid a visit to Atlantic City, New Jersey. It doesn't go there to gamble. Instead, the tests conducted at the FAA Technical Center in Atlantic City are intended to reduce the risk from the introduction of both new systems and major hardware or software modifications.

As the FAA's national scientific test base for research, development, and acquisition programs, the Tech Center is at the forefront of activity in several areas important to general aviation. Current programs include an unleaded replacement for 100-octane, low-lead aviation fuel; precision GPS approaches; and display of near-real-time weather information in the cockpit. The center is also involved in the testing and development of new air traffic control equipment and software, in-service modifications of existing systems and procedures, and long-range development of new systems and concepts for air traffic control, navigation, communications, airports, and aircraft safety and security applications.

The National Aviation Facilities Experimental Center, established in 1958 on a former naval air station by the Airways Modernization Board, became the FAA Technical Center in 1980. More than 1,500 FAA employees — and another 750 contractors — work at the 5,059-acre facility, where about 150 projects are under way at any one time. The center's annual budget exceeds $342 million.

But the Tech Center's funding may be in trouble. In its fiscal year 1996 budget request, the FAA sought $270 million for research and development programs, but a House subcommittee wants to cut that figure to $147 million. Such a reduction in funds could have a dramatic effect on operations at the center, where much of the agency's research and development money is spent.

Few general aviation pilots have the opportunity to visit the facility. Pilots occasionally request tours, said Marjorie A. Smith, a public affairs specialist at the center, but staffing levels make individual tours difficult to offer. She arranges individuals into groups for such tours whenever possible.

Pilots who visit AOPA Expo '95 in Atlantic City this October 19 through 21 will find it much easier to see the facility, however. As part of the convention program, six half-day tours have been arranged for AOPA members. Tours are scheduled for 8:30 a.m. to noon and 1:30 to 5 p.m. each day of Expo and will include the center's air traffic control laboratories, human factors lab, and the aero safety area, where aircraft crash and fire tests are conducted. Transportation from the Atlantic City Convention Center will be provided by AOPA, but participation is limited; sign up in the Expo registration area upon check-in.

The new aviation fuel being developed at the Tech Center must comply with the Environmental Protection Agency's prohibition of lead in motor fuels, and with the Montreal Protocol — an agreement that bans the use of bromides, a fuel additive that scavenges lead deposits from engines.

"Right now, the biggest question we're trying to resolve is the minimum octane requirement for aviation engines in use today," said Kenneth J. Knopp, an FAA aerospace engineer assigned to the fuels research project. Unleaded avgas is already being used in Sweden, but that formulation will not work here. "They don't have a high enough octane number to suppress detonation in a lot of the engines we have in the United States," Knopp explained.

A new Continental IO-550D sat behind him in a test cell, between break-in runs on an unleaded avgas formed 70 percent of aviation alkalyd — which forms the basis of 100LL — and 30 percent of methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE). "When I get the break-in done, I'm going to take off all the cylinders and drill them for the pressure transducers," said Bill Cavage, a technical specialist working on the program.

Pressure transducers will be mounted inside the cylinders, flush with the combustion chamber wall, to detect detonation (premature ignition of the fuel-air mixture). The minimum octane requirement is the lowest number at which detonation does not take place; Knopp speculates the figure will be about 98 octane. Once that number is determined, materials compatibility, storage requirements, fuel color, and other issues must be resolved.

The IO-550 is the first new engine to be tested; three overhauled engines have already been evaluated. "It's very surprising," Cavage said. "[The new] fuel burns very cleanly. You don't have any white deposits at all."

A Lycoming GSO-480 burning the unleaded blend made its first test flight on June 15 in an FAA Aero Commander 680, in order to validate test cell results. After in-flight detonation testing, evaluations with hot fuel, and other checks are completed, the engine will be disassembled and all components will be measured to determine wear.

Once the requirements for the fuel are identified, fuel companies must develop their own formulations before the certification process begins — a process that could take as long as five years. "There are a lot of people pushing for a lot sooner than that, but there's a lot of work to be done," Cavage said.

Also being evaluated in flight is a ground-air datalink providing traffic advisories and graphical near-real-time weather depictions in the cockpit. The system, which for the demonstration uses a Mode S transponder as the data carrier, is being tested by the AOPA Air Safety Foundation for the FAA and Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Labs.

According to NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System data, communication is a contributing factor in 80 percent of aircraft incidents. "I was surprised, even though I was working in the area, how much communication is involved in flying," said Nicholas J. Talotta, the FAA's technical program manager for datalink ground systems. Talotta earned his private pilot certificate in May 1994 and bought a Cessna 172 soon after.

He has experienced frustrating communication problems such as repetition and clearances "stolen" from another aircraft, and believes individually addressed messages will alleviate the problem. "This frequency congestion, as we've come to call it, is also a big workload for the controllers," Talotta said. "We've felt that one of the biggest things datalink is going to do is improve safety. I see a big benefit to everybody for datalink."

Talotta hopes that production volume will bring down equipment costs, encouraging everyone to use the technology. An innovative plan by the FAA to offer pre-certification review of datalink avionics could help manufacturers alleviate some of the up- front production costs. "What we're trying to do is entice the industry to build the avionics," he explained.

A communication technology that won't make its way into cockpits is the FAA's new Voice Switching and Communications System or VSCS, which is now operational in the Seattle and Salt Lake City air route traffic control centers. The system uses video touch screens to simplify controller communications, both with aircraft and with other air traffic control facilities. "It's more efficient and provides more options," explained Richard Piech, manager of the hardware engineering branch at the Tech Center. "It allows us to reconfigure our sectors much more easily."

VSCS was tested for about a year at the Tech Center. "That's the advantage of the lab — we could find the problems here and fix them before deployment [of the system in the field]," he said. "Air traffic control operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It's hard to implement a system in that kind of environment safely."

Three air traffic laboratories at the Tech Center can be configured as en route centers, terminal radar facilities, or automated flight service stations — and either as specific facilities or as generic "universal" sites. They test all new automated ATC equipment, as well as upgrades to existing systems.

But these tests cannot be conducted in an environment where real air traffic is being controlled. And controllers can't realistically evaluate equipment if the radar displays are devoid of returns. To alleviate those concerns, the Tech Center is home to what it calls the real-time simulation team. The center's simulation capabilities can incorporate any combination of live and recorded radar targets from one or more radar facilities, targets generated by employees using computers, and targets originating from aircraft simulators ranging from a twin Cessna to full-motion airliner simulators located at training facilites across the country; these are linked to the Tech Center with special telephone lines.

When the stability of a new system is initially being evaluated, no targets are involved. "As we get more into the testing, we can bring in the targets," Piech explained. Computer tapes of recorded radar targets are introduced, but these cannot be "controlled." As testing advances, however, targets generated by computer-bound "pilots" are introduced; these "airplanes" communicate by radio with the controller and will respond to ATC instructions (unless they have been instructed to disobey a clearance). Aircraft cockpit simulators can also be integrated at this stage. Up to 400 piloted targets — and another 400 "ghosted" targets at higher or lower altitudes — can be incorporated into one evaluation.

The simulation capabilities are used both to evaluate equipment and to evaluate air traffic control procedures. "All our efforts are pretty much looking at capacity," said Rick Ozmore, an air traffic control specialist assigned to the Tech Center's system simulation support division.

Parallel runways provide an excellent example of how simulation technology can be applied. As a result of site-specific studies conducted by the Tech Center, procedures have been approved for simultaneous ILS approaches to two closely spaced parallel runways at Raleigh-Durham International Airport and to triple parallel runways at the new Denver International Airport, among others. Ozmore said that through the simulations it was discovered that a small navigation error can cause an aircraft to enter the no- transgression zone between approach paths; one solution is to offset one of the localizers by 2.5 degrees, but that sacrifices low minimums and some airport capacity in bad weather.

"It seems when you get to the closely spaced runways, communications is a problem," he said. "We're also working on that."

A two-week study beginning in mid-August seeks to establish a national standard for separation of three parallel runways and relates to planned expansion of airports in Atlanta and Pittsburgh. Controllers and airlines will be involved in the program. "Everyone's in right from the start," Ozmore observed. "At the end [the idea is] easier to sell, because everybody's already had a taste of it."

One of the Tech Center's facilities, the Human Factors Laboratory, is involved in many of the center's projects. Specifically designed to support human factors research, the lab examines the interaction of humans and technology from a total system perspective. A reconfigurable cockpit simulator, capable of representing several aircraft, is often used to observe pilot behavior; it can also be linked to other simulators to take part in large-scale air traffic simulation exercises.

Human factors research involves both task load, which is measured, and the work load, which is perceived. A device invented by the lab regularly asks controllers how busy they are; software tracks every keystroke and button press by a controller. Eye tracking records what the controller's eyes are looking at — and how long they remained on that point. "We can actually use it to evaluate whether one display type is more effective than another one," said Dennis L. Filler, an electronics engineer and team leader in the System Simulation Support Branch. "The key to this system is flexibility."

The human factors lab is preparing to begin work on projects relating to the National Operations Control Center, an approach station-keeping project in which aircraft flying approaches to a runway use on-board instruments to maintain separation from other traffic, and the next generation of air traffic control radar consoles. There, research will establish baseline models and set standards for Display System Replacement (DSR) consoles that will replace the canceled Advanced Automation System equipment in en route and terminal radar facilities.

Many Tech Center projects have little effect on general aviation; among them is explosives and weapons detection research for airline passenger and baggage screening. The center's aviation security lab was established by the Aviation Security Improvement Act of 1990, which was enacted in the wake of the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing in December 1988. Advanced technology developed by the aviation security lab was requested — and sent — to Oklahoma City to search for traces of explosives in the rubble of the bombed- out federal building.

"You're looking for relatively small quantities of explosives," said Ronald R. Polillo, manager of the center's Requirements Analysis and Integration Division. Those explosives can be of many different chemical compositions, and they have to be detected very quickly — his division's goal is to screen a bag in an average of only six seconds. "It's a tremendous technological challenge."

Other work at the facility has included integrated training programs for baggage screeners, development of composite cargo containers designed to contain blast forces, and blast analysis and modeling to help aircraft survive explosions. Critical airframe components can be shielded to reduce vulnerability, Polillo said, and the ability to release pressure rapidly can minimize the effects of an explosion. "A lot of these techniques are incorporated in the [Boeing] 777 design," he added.

A five-year, $12 million enhanced airport security demonstration project conducted on a portion of Baltimore- Washington International Airport resulted in published security guidelines for new airports. Technology developed by the FAA for that program has been transferred to industry, Polillo said.

Whether a program is intended primarily to serve general aviation users, commercial aviation, or both, much of contemporary aviation's technology passes through the FAA's Tech Center on its way into the field. A visit to the center offers a glimpse into the future of aviation.


Tours of the FAA Technical Center in Atlantic City, New Jersey, will be offered during AOPA Expo '95, which will be held in Atlantic City from October 19 through 21. Tours are scheduled for 8:30 a.m. to noon and 1:30 to 5 p.m. each day. Bus transportation from the Atlantic City Convention Center will be provided by AOPA, but participation is limited. Members interested in the tours are encouraged to sign up in the Expo registration area upon check-in.