SATS sitting pretty as NASA begins field demos

 - April 2, 2007, 7:05 AM

Just as very light jets are on the verge of joining the new generation of general aviation aircraft produced by Cirrus and Lancair, NASA has begun field demonstrations of its Small Aircraft Transportation System (SATS) in preparation for a more comprehensive proof-of-concept drill next summer at the Danville Regional Airport, Va.

Although the weather was decidedly uncooperative, the Maryland Mid-Atlantic SATSLab (MMSL) held a briefing on this emerging technology at Easton/Newman Field on Maryland’s Eastern Shore last month. That the organization’s Cessna 402 couldn’t do a real-time demo flight was rather ironic in that two of the stated goals of SATS are to demonstrate lower landing minimums at minimally equipped landing facilities and higher-volume operations in non-radar airspace and at non-tower airports.

The other two major operating capabilities being developed are to increase single-pilot safety and mission reliability, and en route procedures and systems for integrated fleet operations, including such concepts as self-controlled airspace and automated sequencing.

The MMSL is one of five SATSLab members developing SATS technology. The others are North Carolina and Upper Great Plains, Southeast, Virginia and Michigan. All are part of the National Consortium for Aviation Mobility.

NASA envisions that the SATS technologies will lead to an advanced generation of “smart” aircraft and “smart airports.” These technologies are being designed to enable access to virtually any runway or helipad in the nation by aircraft that have jet performance at propeller-like prices.

Congress budgeted $69 million for the five-year proof-of-concept period, which ends next year. After that, it is anticipated that SATS development will continue through the next decade. During that time, it is hoped that federal regulations, airspace procedures (such as the recently announced next-generation air-transportation system) and industry products will be developed to accommodate SATS traffic. NASA believes that the system’s full-deployment phase at federal, state and local levels could occur as early as 2015. SATS could be fully mature and operational by 2020.

The SATS project office resides at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., which also was the home of SATS forerunners the Advanced General Aviation Transport Experiments (Agate) alliance and the General Aviation Propulsion (GAP) program. According to NASA, those programs coupled with the General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994 have supported GA recovery and research-and-development investments.

The MMSL has 23 team members, including the New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland state aviation administrations. The leader of the group is the University Research Foundation (URF), a spinoff of the University of Maryland that has been conducting aviation research, development and flight testing for the government and industry for almost 20 years. The president of the nonprofit URF is Dr. Norris Krone Jr., who could arguably be called the father of the enhanced vision system, developed jointly by Kollsman and Gulfstream.

MMSL emphasizes the integration of technologies to increase operations at non-tower airports in IMC. Among the technologies under development by the MMSL are the “cockpit associate,” a low-cost HUD, an enhanced vision system/ combined vision system (EVS/CVS) and the enhanced pilot information center (EPIC).

The cockpit associate is basically an intelligent “copilot in a box” to make recommendations based on the traffic, weather, terrain, airspace boundaries, aircraft state and health, digital communications and other inputs. Designed to improve the efficiency and safety of single-pilot instrument operations, it will also monitor the pilot’s actions to prevent compounding errors and to facilitate synthetic voice and voice recognition for ease of communications.

Applied Systems Intelligence of Roswell, Ga., is developing a knowledge-based software system for simplifying pilot interaction in the increasingly sophisticated GA cockpit. The MMSL pointed out that having more detailed information in the cockpit doesn’t necessary improve single-pilot performance and could cause a distraction.

The URF is conducting research on fusing EVS with NASA’s highway-in-the-sky guidance to form a combined vision system on a low-cost HUD. It also is working with the FAA and Arinc to integrate ADS-B and ACARS through an advanced data-fusion processor.

Further research is ongoing in the URF mobile CNS (communication, navigation and surveillance) station to investigate the sharing of the FAA’s TIS-B information on ACARS to provide near-real-time traffic surveillance information to aircraft with nominal equipage. Used in conjunction with the cockpit associate, automated functions such as traffic surveillance, weather avoidance and digital communication is realized, relieving the pilot of unnecessary workload.

The enhanced pilot information center builds on the Maryland Aviation Administration’s network of the state’s general aviation airports for aviation weather distribution and for other aviation and commercial services. Virginia Beach, Va.-based Dynamic Systems Integration has developed a prototype that could link 400 non-federal AWOS stations at small airports with the FAA’s network for aviation weather reporting, and it is expandable to any number of airports in the country.

The MMSL said that such a network of integrated “intelligent” GA airports will lower the minimum decision altitudes for airports with non-federal AWOS stations.