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Smart Phone SWIMming


A group of corporate pilots is helping the FAA and NASA to figure out how to reduce tarmac delays at busy airports.

Participating corporate flight departments need only iPhones with a MITRE-developed application.

Pilots provide their departure time over the application, but in the future will receive key flight planning information in return.

A handful of business aviation operators, and their iPhones and iPads, have become trailblazers in the FAA's effort to smooth the gate-to-gate flow of traffic at congested airports, starting with Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

The pilot program is part of NASA's ongoing Airspace Technology Demonstration 2 (ATD-2) project which, in cooperation with the FAA, aims to make surface movements more predictable — in part through data sharing. ATD-2 findings will also help the FAA optimize its new Terminal Flight Data Management (TFDM) system, set to for initial deployments to airport towers starting in 2019.

At Charlotte, four airlines have begun sharing certain data elements for every flight directly with NASA through the FAA's System Wide Information Management (SWIM) system. Included is the earliest time an aircraft can push back from the gate — also called earliest off-block time (EOBT) — wheels off, wheels on and gate-in. The data elements will feed the NASA-built metering automation system designed to minimize conga lines on the ramp and ensure departing aircraft have a waiting slot in the overhead stream. Currently, flights departing Charlotte can wait as long as 45 minutes in a line of 15 or more aircraft before receiving a takeoff clearance.

Airlines are not the only users of major airports, and at locations like Las Vegas, where business aviation can make up as much as 50% of the traffic during popular events, effective metering will require input from a broader set of users.

"We did an assessment to find out if there were gaps that might prevent the FAA from completing its surface metering vision," said Craig Johnson, the ATD-2 mobile technologies project leader for MITRE Corp. "We found that at some airports, business aviation traffic was not being considered."

For smaller operators, participating in surface metering would have been cost- and time-prohibitive: Connecting to SWIM in order to send the FAA data elements like EOBT would require an information technology infrastructure that most do not have. Most smaller operators, however, have smartphones and tablets. "We set up a collaboration with NASA to bring mobile capability into ATD-2 in an incremental fashion," Johnson said. "Right now we're in a beta test phase."

SWIM Data via smart phone

MITRE is developing processes and procedures that will allow corporate and general aviation pilots to use their smartphones to send and receive essential departure information.

Working with the National Business Aviation Association, MITRE signed up five companies of varying sizes to participate in the beta test. The pilots use mobile devices to submit only one data element — their EOBT (which, in more generic terms, is the earliest time they would be able to taxi) — using an application developed by MITRE. Through its connection to SWIM, MITRE monitors when the participating operators at Charlotte file flight plans. When an EOBT comes in from one of the operators via a mobile device, MITRE attaches the flight plan information from SWIM, and sends all of the data to NASA for the ATD-2 scheduler. "We hand it off to NASA just like we would send it back into SWIM," Johnson said.

It is too soon to tell how much of an impact the corporate operations are having on metering. NASA and MITRE are evaluating the EOBTs offline, but plan to add the information to the scheduler later this year, "once we assess the input and it looks reasonable," Johnson said.

The next step for the mobile technology demonstration will be to provide two-way data to the operators. "We considered incentives above and beyond trying to explain how this data helps the big picture," Johnson said. One highly desirable piece of data that operators would like to receive is an early notification of a ground delay. "Today they load up, they taxi out, they call the tower and the tower tells them they're delayed 20 minutes," Johnson said. "If they would have known earlier, they could have better managed boarding and their decision to taxi."

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