“Space at the top”: New Software Saves Time and Fuel
One thing is clear: there is great potential. Every liter of kerosene saved counts – and time is money. The use of the Traffic Aware Planner (TAP) is closely linked to the TASAR project. This NASA software gives the pilots on board concrete, optimized horizontal and vertical route recommendations to reach the destination airport as quickly and efficiently as possible. Of course, the crew cannot take these recommendations on their own authority, but they can radio them to air traffic controllers for authorization and approval of new routes.
Route Optimization with Real-Time Data
Research director Wing and his colleague Dr Kelly Burke accompanied Peyton on several flights to check whether the system was working and was adopted by the crew. Burke was responsible for programming the “human” interface: the display surface. “It was pretty exciting for me to observe the pilots working with the software. We wanted to know whether the crew could switch effectively between the possible applications – and that’s what they did.”
For its flight path calculations, TAP simultaneously draws on real-time weather data, air traffic in the relevant airspace and the status of the aircraft, for example its load, speed, altitude and, of course, fuel consumption. All information is constantly changing, and the system provides the cockpit crew with a new route recommendation every 60 seconds, weighing up the best options.
Low Installation Costs
Background: Commercial aircraft become gradually lighter in the course of a flight as kerosene is burned. In order to further increase efficiency, pilots usually ask the control stations for authorization to climb to the highest possible altitudes, where they can fly more fuel-efficiently. However, this standard procedure does not always bring advantages, because there is often a significant threat to efficiency lurking there: headwind. Neither pilots nor air traffic controllers can predict this, but TAP is different. Thanks to real-time connectivity to external information sources such as other aircraft in the vicinity and weather satellites, the system always makes the best current proposal for the course to take. And sometimes that is indeed the old one.
The new efficiency application is not considered safety-critical, so there is nothing standing in the way of approval by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) at the end of the test phase. The low implementation costs are another advantage: The new Traffic Aware Planner is even compatible with a commercially available iPad.
“It was pretty exciting for me to observe the pilots working with the software. We wanted to know if the crew could effectively switch between possible applications – and that’s what they did.”
Dr Kelly Burke, Traffic Aware Planner Interface Developer
Photos by NASA and Alaska Airlines
Text by Behrend Oldenburg