Tight Connections: Driving Aviation Discovery, Night and Day

December 2020
Topics: Air Traffic Management, Data Analytics, Aviation Industry, Aviation Research and Development, Collaborations
Two MITRE labs—thousands of miles and half a day apart—collaborate on simulations to expand one of the world’s busiest airports, while gaining knowledge that helps make global air travel safer and more efficient.
Terminal Four of the Changi Airport in Singapore

How do you make the best even better? If you’re Singapore, you expand the capabilities of Changi Airport, the international aviation centerpiece of the Asia Pacific region. And how do you do it? By partnering with a pioneer in aviation safety—even when it means collaborating across oceans, hemispheres, and time zones to make it a reality.

Changi Airport is in the midst of a new phase of a multi-year development to add a fifth terminal and third runway, plus a remote air traffic tower. The expansion will transform every aspect of airport operations. To get there, they’re partnering with MITRE’s aviation engineers and data analysts—both in Virginia and Singapore.  

Our staff in McLean, Virginia, conduct research and simulations that demonstrate how expanded operations will be safe and efficient. Meanwhile, their international colleagues from MITRE and Singaporean aviation authorities work on similar exacting tasks.

The logistics—time difference, cultures, technology standards, and staffing—require high levels of agility and precision to help the plans surpass rigorous safety thresholds.  

A recent case in point: Teams from MITRE Asia Pacific Singapore (MAPS) and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) conducted simulations that validate MITRE-designed procedures for the expanded airport.

“This was a collaborative effort with the air traffic controllers from CAAS,” says Juliana Goh, MITRE’s Singapore site manager. “We brought our expertise in maximizing the use of three-runway operations and design of procedures for complex flight information regions, and CAAS brought its knowledge of local constraints and challenges.”

Passing this significant milestone clears the way for CAAS to continue the expansion that’s been underway since 2015. The simulations that MAPS and CAAS collaborated on came after painstaking testing, debugging, and dry runs to deliver software and procedures that will meet mission needs.

Two Labs, Two Hemispheres, One Goal

The work requires extensive integration testing in two different facilities, connected by mission if not location. Thanks to the 12-hour time zone difference, when something goes wrong, it takes longer to resolve. But no one backs down from the challenge.

Paul MacWilliams, who manages MITRE’s Integration Demonstration and Experimentation for Aeronautics (IDEA) Lab in McLean, says operating the sister labs in two distant locations draws on our staff’s ability to take risks and adapt to find answers to their software and technology hurdles.

“When we first set up the Singapore lab, it was very challenging,” MacWilliams admits. The U.S.-based IDEA Lab has more than 50 engineers, including subject matter experts, to address any problem. This vital resource stood ready to partner with their colleagues in Singapore.

But there was a potential issue: to ensure additional security, MITRE global employees lack the same access to the MITRE network.

“Technology could have been a major hurdle for us,” MacWilliams says. “We used a tremendous amount of care and deliberation, which took collaboration across MITRE, to make MAPS successful. Coordination among facilities, information security, lab services, finance, contracts, legal, and more. It was remarkable that these teams devised how to set up this facility and how we would interoperate and interact with it. They made sure there were no technical barriers.”

Navigating Across Time Zones

Technical barriers weren’t the only issues the teams faced, however.

“The time difference is one challenge that doesn’t go away,” says Marco Quezada, a McLean-based simulation engineer and IDEA Lab lead. “A 12-hour time difference in work can turn into a 24- or 48-hour response time if a problem arises. When they’re at work, I’m in bed. If they’re in the middle of something, it can stop their show.”

If there’s a problem, Quezada can’t read it until hours later when he wakes up and gets to work. By that time, the Singapore colleagues have ended their workday and headed home. If the problem is more complex, it might take a whole workday before the McLean team sends a fix. 

Early on, MITRE had staff on duty in both hemispheres to address problems that arose. But as the Singapore office became more established, the daily need for that level of staffing in both locations diminished. Today, teams in each office work local business hours most of the time. Clear and frequent communication is key to effective collaboration. A phone call, after hours for one party or the other, is often all that’s required to iron out a solution.

For simulations or demonstrations like the testing that Goh describes, staff in Singapore and McLean communicate closely and work to anticipate any shortcoming that may turn into a bigger problem later.

“Sometimes, when the experiment takes place and the customer is going to be present, someone from McLean will fly to Singapore to be on site in case of glitches and access the MITRE network if needed,” Quezada says.

Training Our Focus on the Future and Safe Flight

Singapore, a young country eager to adopt cutting-edge technology and processes, operates a single, sprawling, and still-expanding transportation and cultural ecosystem. The United States is the world leader in aviation safety and standards.

“Other countries pay attention to what the United States does,” says Urmila Hiremath, who directs MITRE’s Transportation Innovation Center. As a result, the Federal Aviation Administration supports MITRE’s international aviation work.

CAAS, in its work toward adding a runway to an already busy airport, benefits from MITRE’s experience working with Denver International Airport and Jackson-Hartsfield Atlanta International third-runway projects.

“Adding a runway increases your potential capacity, but it affects every other aspect of airport operations,” Hiremath says. “You can’t easily, efficiently, or safely land aircraft on a third runway without it affecting the other two runways.”

MITRE in turn is learning from Changi’s experience, not just with respect to runways, but remote towers as well. In the United States and in several European locations, unstaffed, automated towers are being tested. However, this won’t happen quickly in the U.S. Hiremath says she believes the diversity of airport sizes, locations, and management structures will contain the pace of adoption in the United States.

Until then, we will be collecting data, documenting the benefits and the risks, to inform future aviation safety and efficiency efforts, because whether it’s night or day, discovery doesn’t sleep.

by Molly Manchenton

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