NASA technology aims to save commercial airlines fuel and time

During the next three years Virgin America and Alaska Airlines will test a NASA-developed software application called Traffic Aware Planner (TAP) designed to help air carriers save time and reduce fuel consumption and carbon emissions by making ‘traffic aware strategic aircrew requests’ (TASAR).

"TAP connects directly to the aircraft avionics information hub on the aircraft," said David Wing, TASAR project lead at NASA. "It reads the current position and altitude of the aircraft, its flight route, and other real-time information that defines the plane's current situation and active flight plan. Then it automatically looks for a variety of route and/or altitude changes that could save fuel or flight time and displays those solutions directly to the flight crew."

TAP can also connect with the plane's Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast receiver and scan the signals of nearby air traffic to avoid potential conflicts in any proposed flight path changes, making it easier for air traffic controllers to approve a pilot's route change request.

For airlines with Internet connectivity in the cockpit, TAP also can access information, such as real-time weather conditions, wind forecast updates and restricted airspace status, to further increase flight efficiency.

Wing and his team have already tested the TASAR software aboard a Piaggio P180 Avanti aircraft. The system worked well on its initial test flight from Virginia to Kentucky, according to its test pilot, former airline captain William Cotton: "We used it to make a route change request from air traffic control, which they granted; we got a shortcut that saved four minutes off the flight time."

According to researchers, four minutes of flight time shaved off of each leg of a trip made by an airline could result in massive fuel and time savings.

Developers say the technology won't require changes to the roles and responsibilities of pilots or air traffic controllers, which would allow the system to be implemented quickly and start producing benefits right away.

"The system is meant to help pilots make better route requests that air traffic controllers can more often approve," said Wing. "This should help pilots and controllers work more effectively together and reduce workload on both sides from un-approvable requests."