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NASA Completes Key Step in Aviation Safety Research


Artist concept showing various projects the SWS team works on, from developing new data solutions, new technology and the safety risks associated with it, from robotics to unmanned aircraft and more.
NASA’s transformational vision for the skies above our communities includes enabling safer and more efficient air travel. Part of this goal involves using advanced new technology to prevent safety risks long before they have a chance to arise.

NASA’s aeronautical innovators have completed a significant step in their pursuit of safer, more efficient aviation technologies that spot hazards before they occur.

Through its System-Wide Safety project, NASA and its partners in government, industry, and academia are exploring new technologies and techniques to improve current aviation safety and potentially enable widespread use of new types of aircraft such as drones or air taxis.

The project recently completed Technical Challenge 1 (TC-1), Terminal Area Risk Management, the first step towards achieving what is known as an In-Time Aviation Safety Management System. This new type of aviation safety technology can effectively address potential hazards expected with the rise in demand for the number and types of aircraft flying in the National Airspace System.

As aviation operations continue to grow in scale and diversity, and with new modes of flight expected to rise in the near future, keeping the skies safe becomes increasingly complex and drives the need to transform the way order is maintained above our communities.

“What we’ve accomplished with TC-1 is really just beginning to scratch the surface of what’s possible,” said Kyle Ellis, NASA’s project manager for System-Wide Safety. “Developing these systems enables a new economy for aviation uses that will benefit us all in the future.”

Planning Ahead

In a busy aviation environment, an In-Time Aviation Safety Management System can efficiently identify and predict safety issues a human would be hard tasked to keep up with.

In today’s airspace safety system, let’s say an air traffic manager is looking at their screen and guiding 10 airplanes towards their destinations. This person would use a combination of established safety rules and pattern recognition to make sure those aircraft remain a safe distance apart. If this person saw a hazard that posed a safety risk, they would work with the pilots aboard the aircraft and resolve the issue.

Now, let’s think about the airspace of tomorrow. Instead of 10 airplanes total, 10 air taxis, 10 ultra-efficient airliners, and 10 commercial supersonic jets might be sharing the same confined airspace. Preventing and addressing hazards would become a more complex issue nearly impossible for a person to identify in time to prevent an accident.

An In-Time Aviation Safety Management System is designed to identify these events much more rapidly than human operators, then quickly deliver actionable safety procedures to prevent the dangerous situation long before it develops.

Furthermore, preventing these situations from ever arising in the first place increases the efficiency of the airspace overall, since not as much time and effort would be spent by managers keeping things running smoothly.

Laying the Foundation

TC-1 contributed several important pieces of technology working towards the development of such a system. These contributions improve aviation safety not just for tomorrow – but also for today.

For example, part of the research included using new machine learning algorithms to analyze data gathered from major airlines, which use existing aviation safety management systems, to discover potential safety risks that had previously been undefined – overall making things safer.

Researchers also gathered information on exact ways human safety managers, pilots, air traffic controllers, and others interact with safety procedures. The team identified useful, efficient practices, as well as those that could potentially lead to safety risks. Their work contributes substantially to improving training and safety operations.

Additionally, researchers studied human performance and fatigue, partnering with pilots to study how various factors such as flight scheduling, certain short-haul routes, and even the COVID-19 pandemic affect operations.

Other results include prototype safety tools and surveys on human performance.

With this more comprehensive understanding of the safety landscape, NASA and its partners can more effectively continue ushering in new safety technologies.

“We focused on gathering data on current-day operations, but always have an eye for the near future,” said Nikunj Oza, subproject manager for TC-1. “We can use the lessons learned about current aviation safety to best inform new systems.”

About the Author

John Gould

John Gould

Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate

John Gould is a member of NASA Aeronautics' Strategic Communications team at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. He is dedicated to public service and NASA’s leading role in scientific exploration. Prior to working for NASA Aeronautics, he was a spaceflight historian and writer, having a lifelong passion for space and aviation.