In the 1990s, Heinz Erzberger led a team at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California to develop a suite of automated tools to reduce restrictions and improve the efficiency of air traffic control operations. Called Center-TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control) Automation System (CTAS), the suite included a traffic management advisor that was adopted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Another one of the tools, Direct-To, has followed a different path.
Using Direct-To, airlines could save fuel and money by shortening the routes they flew between takeoff and landing. Aircraft are often limited to following established airways comprised of inefficient route segments. To make the routes more direct while in flight, Erzberger developed a software algorithm that could automatically examine air traffic in real time, check to see if a shortcut was available, and then check for conflicts.
In 2001, NASA demonstrated Direct- To in the airspace of Dallas-Fort Worth. Estimations based on the demonstrations found the technology was capable of saving 900 flying minutes per day for the aircraft in the area.
Boeing Commercial Airplane’s Airline Efficiency Services in Seattle met with Erzberger and NASA to discuss Direct-To, which Boeing wanted to transition into practical airline use. A Space Act Agreement between Boeing and NASA was signed, after which Boeing licensed the technology and developed new software code on top of the core algorithms of the NASA tool. Boeing trials conducted with Southwest and Continental Airlines confirmed Boeing’s ability to run a significant amount of Boeing software and ensured that advisories worked properly.
By 2010, Boeing had incorporated the technology into a subscription-based product called Direct Routes. Commercially available since 2011 as part of the company’s InFlight Optimization Services, the software provides real-time advisories to aircraft for suggested shortcuts that are prechecked for traffic conflicts, wind conditions, established airspace constraints, and other factors.
According to Boeing, Direct Routes can save tens of thousands of flight minutes per year for a medium-sized U.S. operator. In total, the technology could save 20 million gallons of fuel per year for commercial airlines — about $50 million per year.
Direct Routes continuously monitors flights in real time to check for traffic control variables, the aircraft’s current flight trajectory, air traffic control acceptability, weather conditions, and other factors. When there are small course changes along an aircraft’s intended route that can reduce at least one minute of flight time, the pilot is notified with a message much like a text message on a cellphone. The pilot can make a verbal request to the controller, who can approve a new route.
The advisories are transmitted using existing communication channels and are designed to comply with current operating procedures. There are also no regulatory changes and minimal new equipment required. Direct Routes potential customers include aircraft flying in U.S. airspace such as commercial airlines, business aviation, military, general aviation, and international flights — many of which are already in discussion with Boeing about the system.
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