Aviation Lab Delivers Innovation and Impact for 25 Years and Counting

January 2018
Topics: Aeronautics, Avionics, Air Traffic Management, Modeling and Simulation, Airports, Aviation Industry, Transportation
For more than a quarter century, one MITRE capability has been foundational to a wide range of work in the aviation and space domains: the Aviation Integration, Demonstration, and Experimentation for Aeronautics
MITRE employees working in the IDEA lab

Have you ever wondered how new ways of doing things make it into our nation's skies? You can't exactly halt a thousand flights or shut down a hundred airports to see what works. That's where the Aviation IDEA Lab comes in.

Since its creation in 1992, MITRE's Aviation IDEA Lab has accelerated our ability to explore new technology, procedures, and ideas designed to improve the efficiency and safety of the National Airspace System (NAS). In the lab, pilots, controllers, airline representatives, and other key stakeholders work side by side with MITRE staff. Together, we evaluate and refine future concepts through simulations of real-world problems.

The lab employs a variety of software capabilities and simulation environments—such as cockpit and air traffic control tower simulators—that allow us to study all phases of flight. Our researchers can choose from the dozens of available capabilities when designing their experiments. These elements are all interconnected, so they interact seamlessly to create a realistic environment.

Each year, the lab runs 12 to 20 evaluations. For many of these weeks- or months-long evaluations, we bring in pilots, controllers, air traffic managers, or other stakeholders. They test the concepts, procedures, or technologies under development to see how they will work in the real or future world. Based on their feedback, we can quickly make refinements to mature requirements and evolve concepts.

"The lab provides an environment for all parties to share the experience of a proposed concept change and vet ideas to mature the capabilities," says department head Paul MacWilliams. "It also gives stakeholders an opportunity to discuss their concerns on a variety of issues." Everything from workload, communication, and safety, to roles, responsibilities, and human-computer interaction are on the table.

"This is a place to gain consensus among key stakeholders—not only for MITRE-developed technology, but for capabilities from other research organizations, industry and academia as well," adds technical director Urmila Hiremath.

Over its 25-year history, the Aviation IDEA Lab has played a critical role in evaluating, refining, and enabling implementation of a wide array of improvements to NAS operations and technologies. In the last decade alone, the lab has contributed to several significant improvements.

Avoiding Wake Turbulence

For example, some U.S. airports have closely spaced parallel runways, which creates an increased likelihood that aircraft will encounter turbulence from each other's wakes. To address that issue, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) developed wake turbulence avoidance concepts for closely spaced parallel operations.

We tested these concepts in the Aviation IDEA Lab with controllers, using real-time air traffic control simulations. These activities ultimately supported the deployment of the FAA's wake avoidance procedures in 2008.

Integrating Unmanned Aircraft Systems

Integrating unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the NAS is a critical challenge for the aviation industry. As UAS become more common in both the civil and military arenas, there is an increasing need to enable these vehicles to fly safely in the NAS—and without disrupting the activities of more traditional users. The Aviation IDEA Lab supports research on these efforts.

In 2012, the U.S. Air Force sought our help in evaluating profiles it had developed to launch, fly, and land its UAS under a variety of conditions. In the Aviation IDEA Lab, we created a realistic environment for evaluating the profiles and determining potential constraints. This work enabled the Air Force to move forward with live flight testing.

In another project, we investigated ground-based sense and avoid (GBSAA) systems for integrating UAS into the NAS. Using the capabilities available in the Aviation IDEA Lab, a MITRE team evaluated what GBSAA capabilities would best provide UAS pilots with the situational awareness data they needed to fly their aircraft safely in the NAS.

Enhancing Safety on the Surface

Over the years, the Aviation IDEA Lab has also evaluated a variety of surface situational awareness improvements for the FAA—all designed to enhance safety at the airport.

For instance, the lab played a key role in 2012, when we began research on the Low-Cost Surface Awareness project. This work aimed to provide smaller airports with an affordable surveillance system that could let controllers know where aircraft are located on the surface—even when fog or rain obscures their view. The idea was to install sensors at periodic points on the airport's surface and to divide the surface into "blocks." When an aircraft or ground vehicle passes by a sensor, it would detect that the block is occupied and notify the controller.

Our researchers first tried out this concept in the Aviation IDEA Lab and then developed a prototype using real sensors. Based on favorable test results and stakeholder feedback from the laboratory testing, in 2015 we made the Low-Cost Surface Awareness System prototype available for licensing so industry could create an affordable surveillance system for the aviation community.

The lab was also instrumental in the development of the Closed Runway Operation Prevention Device. The technology uses automatic speech recognition on controller transmissions to detect clearances erroneously issued to use runways designated as closed. Laboratory evaluation and refinement of the capability with controllers led to the issuance of a patent for the technology in 2015 and field testing in 2016.

Refining Surveillance Broadcast Capabilities

The Aviation IDEA Lab has also played a significant role in the development of cockpit-based applications of the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) technology known as "ADS-B In." Aircraft equipped with ADS-B In can receive ADS broadcasts from other aircraft. These broadcasts indicate an aircraft's position. The Aviation IDEA Lab has prototyped, demonstrated, and evaluated numerous ADS-B In-based applications for FAA and industry consensus over the years. These applications have helped improve pilots' awareness of safety issues, maintain airports' arrival capacity even as visibility conditions degrade, and ensure safe spacing between aircraft.

Findings from Aviation IDEA Lab research are also used to inform ADS-B avionics standards.

Optimizing Airspace in Busy Locales

Over the last 10 years, the Aviation IDEA Lab has played a major role in airspace redesign activities, most recently under the FAA's Metroplex initiative. The program seeks to improve air traffic flow and fuel efficiency in the nation's busiest metroplexes (geographic areas served by multiple major airports).

As the Metroplex project teams redesign the arrival and departure procedures for the different metroplexes, they evaluate their designs in the Aviation IDEA Lab. From 2011 through 2017, the lab hosted teams from 10 different metroplexes. During these evaluations, air traffic controllers working the airspace being redesigned were brought in to evaluate the new flight patterns. Based on their feedback, researchers made alterations and re-evaluated them while the controllers were still in the lab, an efficient way to refine the designs.

An Award-Winning Technology Makes General Aviation Safer

The accident rate in single-pilot operations is approximately three times higher than that for operations with multiple crew members. With those numbers in mind, MITRE began researching ways to improve the safety of single-pilot flights in 2015.

We ultimately created Digital Copilot™, a set of software algorithms that helps reduce the solo pilot's workload by serving as an automated co-pilot. Digital Copilot™ uses mobile devices, algorithms, and automated speech recognition technologies to provide pilots with the information they need, when they need it. Just as important, they receive the information in a format that's helpful and not distracting.

Researchers used a general aviation simulator in the Aviation IDEA Lab in the development, testing, and tuning of the algorithms. Later, they brought pilots into the lab to evaluate the effectiveness and ease of use of the technology's various features. Following successful flight testing, in 2016 MITRE released the Digital Copilot™ technology for licensing, allowing software companies to incorporate these new ideas into their existing or planned systems. And in 2017, Digital Copilot™ earned a spot on the prestigious R&D 100 list, as selected by R&D Magazine. 

Demonstrating the Future

Today, the Aviation IDEA Lab is helping demonstrate the FAA's future vision for trajectory-based operations (TBO), an air traffic management method for strategically planning, managing, and optimizing flight efficiency. TBO takes advantage of enhancements in aircraft's ability to fly precise paths, new traffic flow management approaches that use time—rather than distance between aircraft—to more efficiently space flights, and improved mechanisms for information exchange between air and ground systems. The Aviation IDEA Lab is being used to mature and validate technology enhancements, training strategies, tailored solutions, and human elements of TBO.

Other complex changes to the NAS are continuing to unfold. As UAS activity expands, passenger and cargo flights continue to increase, and commercial space activity escalates, new capabilities across the FAA and industry will be needed to meet these evolving challenges. The Aviation IDEA Lab will be there to perform the thorough, real-time simulations that will enable the integration of these new capabilities in the National Airspace System.

—by Marlis McCollum

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