EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP - The Federal Aviation Administration unveiled a $10 million lab today in which researchers, avionics engineers and former pilots and air-traffic controllers are collaborating on software systems meant to make flying safer and more efficient.
The NextGen Integration and Evaluation Capability, or NIEC, lab is named for the Next Generation Air Transportation System that includes the software programs under development at the lab among its conceptual and technological innovations.
NextGen is a multi-billion-dollar federal initiative aimed at updating air travel. Most related research has occurred at the William J. Hughes Technical Center in Egg Harbor Township, the FAA's main development and testing site.
FAA invested about $1 million in the NIEC lab. Worth about 10 times that much, equipment and renovations were mostly either previously paid for or donated by the government, contractors and manufacturers, center director Wilson Felder said.
"You're seeing the integration," Felder said this morning during a tour for reporters and government officials. "Previously, we had the unmanned-aerial vehicle and air-traffic control (simulators) in different labs. When we brought them together, the problems they had talking to one another ... were resolved."
The difficulty in translating lingo used by professionals from different fields within the aviation industry is but one example of the kinks that are best worked out in person, and which prompted the FAA to create the NIEC lab, Felder said.
As he spoke, about 20 retired military and commercial pilots and air-traffic controllers ran simulations.
Some sat before faux air-traffic control booths. They watched animated planes move across a 270-degree "window" that actually is a computer screen reflecting in real time decisions made by them and simulator-pilots sitting in a different section of the lab.
Meanwhile, a pair of retired commercial pilots manned the controls of an imitation cockpit. Aluminum stairs led up to the cockpit door; inside, a screen the image of a neighborhood near the Dallas-Forth Worth airport.
In yet another cluster, computer screens flashed graphics depicting weather patterns, flight schedules and flight progression.
The simulators face situations created using archived information on weather, in-flight performance and other components of past, real-world scenarios.
Their responses are tracked and saved; ultimately, that raw data will script computer programs aimed at speeding decision-making by pilots and air-traffic controllers, said Tom Carty, manager of the aviation weather operational readiness and implementation team.
Such internal advances will build on the external capabilities aircraft must install by 2020. The change will require as much as $4.1 billion to equip planes to convey their positions and trajectories to other aircraft and air-traffic control towers via the Automatic-Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, another NextGen component.
ADS-B relies on satellites, which are more precise and thereby considered superior to the radars that enable the 70-year-old navigation system used now.