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A Virtual Window Into The Future

Are you getting a new control tower, runway or terminal at your airport? If so, the Airport Facilities Terminal Integration Laboratory should be at the top of your list for planning such major changes to your operation.

The state-of-the-art lab – dubbed by the FAA's ATC Facilities and Engineering Services directorate as the "crystal ball" for the air traffic control environment – features two sophisticated tower simulators and an associated full-scale, tower-cab mockup shop.

Interior view of the Cab Simulation Suite

An interior view of the Cab Simulation Suite used for tower siting, operational assessments, quick-look studies, line-of-sight studies and more.

The Cab Simulation Suite creates a realistic 3-D model of dozens of airports across the United States and simulates aircraft movements and air traffic operations, allowing controllers to visualize future changes to the airport or tower and how those changes would affect their work, as well as operational safety. The suite features 52 55-inch LED monitors, oriented vertically from floor to ceiling and connected in a 360-degree ring to mimic an out-of-window view from a tower.

Controllers utilizing the simulator can move around the airport to see it from multiple vantage points for enhanced tower siting. The CSS has helped controllers enhance their line of sight from all positions in the tower, which has led to fewer runway incursions.

"If you're making changes to your airport infrastructure, this is a place you might want to learn a little bit more about because we are a resource you can use to do better planning," said Anthony Rodriguez, the AFTIL's manager. "You're making multimillion-dollar decisions, so there is no substitute for this. You can spend a little money now at the lab, or you can spend a lot of money later fixing problems."

While the simulation suite offers controllers a virtual reality of the tower and airport where they operate, the mockup lab allows them to get hands-on with replicas of ATC equipment – radios, radar, weather and more – in a representation of the tower-cab interior. The equipment can be repositioned on a slatwall, and it gives visitors an idea of whether the cab is too big or small for their real-world operations.

tower mock up

The tower mock up allows people to interact with computer simulators.

Recreating airports to a T

Considering the complexity of the 3-D modeling and computer programming required to simulate an out-of-window tower view, it takes a team of engineers and computer scientists to get the airports to the screen with great detail and accuracy.

The process starts with electrical engineer John Aschenbach, an expert in photogrammetry – the science of making measurements from photographs. Using sophisticated software, Aschenbach extracts 3-D information from high-resolution aerial photos of airports taken by the U.S. National Geodetic Survey. "I build a wire-frame diagram and then texture that using the pictures," he said. "I can get the exact location and orientation of each photo."

'Accuracy and attention to detail' is key

When visiting controllers use the simulation lab, they see an airport that looks just like the real ones they watch over from their towers. Even the aircraft are in just the right places and move exactly the way they do in real life at their facilities.

Cab Simulation Suite

Conducting an operational assessment in the Cab Simulation Suite.

That's because a team of five controllers – with more than 100 years of field-level experience combined – programs the air routes and the normal functions of the ground vehicles and aircraft for each airport based on their analyses from observations made during tower visits.

"For example, we'll put the exact Delta aircraft at the gate and use its call sign," said John Pallante, the task lead for the team of controllers at AFTIL. "So when a controller from that facility comes here, they feel at home – the realism of the model, and the attention to detail. The key to success is our accuracy and attention to detail."

"We may say 'we've seen a very similar operation in Denver,' for example, and 'you may want to check with the guys there, and they may help your particular situation,'" Pallante said. "We try to keep that knowledge base here so they can get the best bang for the buck."

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