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NASA tests next-gen air traffic software

Tablet in cockpit
A tablet computer displays air traffic data during simulations. (NASA Photo / David C. Bowman)

Landing planes at busy airports can be a challenging work of aerial ballet, and this week, NASA is testing a computerized choreographer to handle the job in the skies over Washington state.

The tests, supervised by NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, are part of a series of flights known as Air Traffic Management Technology Demonstration, or ATD-1.

Three research airplanes have been outfitted with NASA-developed software that keeps track of the speed and position of the airplanes as they approach an airport.

The flight deck interval management software automatically calculates how fast the planes should be traveling to maintain the proper spacing between them, and displays that information on a tablet in the planes’ cockpits.

The software can predict the moment when an airplane touches down within a few seconds. That information should help pilots and ground controllers plot the planes’ routes more easily and efficiently. The payoff comes in the form of fuel savings, noise and pollution reduction and fewer flight delays.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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