Aviation: Supporting Transformational Change in the National Airspace System

December 2013
Mahesh Balakrishna

An early dream to become a pilot ultimately led Mahesh Balakrishna to his current career in aviation systems engineering at MITRE. "I've been interested in aviation for as long as I can remember," he says. "After high school I decided to go into an engineering program to get some solid academic training, but becoming a commercial pilot was my ultimate goal."

Today, he's a group leader in the Performance-Based Navigation Standards and Tools department within the Center for Advanced Aviation System Development, the federally funded research and development center MITRE operates for the Federal Aviation Administration.

Balakrishna came to MITRE after a few years with another company with an aviation focus. "While that company also served the FAA, I knew there was something different about MITRE that allowed its employees to be involved in some pretty amazing work for the agency. I wanted to be part of that."

Upon joining MITRE in 2006, Balakrishna worked on requirements analysis for FAA automation systems, such as those used in the management of air traffic in the nation's skies. His research now focuses on performance-based navigation (PBN) and trajectory-based operations. "On the PBN side, I lead a team that's developing various capabilities and tools for assessing how PBN procedures are being implemented and used in the National Airspace System (NAS) and what their operational benefits are." One major initiative in this effort is the PBN Analysis System, which integrates data from a variety of sources to generate an extensive set of metrics for all major airports in the NAS on a daily basis. This huge data set enables analyses that produce an understanding of PBN operational changes in all phases of flight both across the NAS and at the local level.

"With this capability, we can drill down to examine a particular procedure at a given point in time or we can zoom out and look at multiple procedures, geographical locations, and timeframes to get an overall picture. It's very versatile and very fast. We're able to produce analyses in a fraction of the time it once took."

Fostering Data-Driven Decisions

The PBN Analysis System is Balakrishna's favorite project thus far in his career. "This project has been gratifying because the capability has been transformational for the FAA. It's enabled the agency to make data-driven decisions about where to implement new PBN procedures and where to retire older conventional procedures that aren't cost-efficient to maintain if they aren't used extensively. It also allows the FAA to examine the system-wide impact of local changes."

The uses for the capability continue to expand, he says. "The huge data set that comprises the PBN Analysis System feeds a variety of other analyses, including decisions about how to most efficiently retire outdated infrastructure in the NAS."

Balakrishna's work with trajectory-based operations builds on these PBN-related efforts. "If you are flying a PBN procedure, the lateral and vertical paths are well-defined. With trajectory-based operations, we add time to that picture. This allows the service provider to know exactly when an aircraft will arrive at different points along the route and apply constraints as needed. That enables better planning and management of contingencies, which translate into improvements in efficiency."

An Environment that Allows Employees to Grow

Based on his own experience, Balakrishna highly recommends the company to recent graduates and those in the early years of their careers. "MITRE is a great place for someone new to the field. You get to interact with a lot of subject matter experts, be involved in cutting-edge research, and work in an environment where there are so many diverse projects that you can really find your own area of interest. You don't have to leave MITRE to find work that interests you. There is so much going on here that it will keep you busy the rest of your career."

While Balakrishna's own career path deviated from his original goal, he did not give up on his dream to fly. In 2002 he obtained his private pilot's license. His next goal? "To get my instrument rating so I can fly even when visibility is low."

—by Marlis McCollum

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