Air Force

3-D presentation of air traffic control data

Stereoscopic imaging allows controllers to see vertical separation of aircraft

Software & Information Technology

Above is a common 2-D display of air traffic control data in which controllers must continually and manually calculate vertical separation of multiple assets on the fly.

Air traffic controllers are responsible for the safety of aircraft at higher altitudes, in specific sectors of 3-D blocks of airspace with defined dimensions. Each sector is managed by at least one controller. This can be done with or without the use of radar, though radar allows a sector to accommodate much more traffic. Despite years of effort and billions of dollars spent on computer software designed to assist air traffic control, progress has been largely limited to improving the sensing of targets and not the presentation of information to controllers. With domestic and international airspace becoming increasingly crowded, controllers are faced with congested 2-D displays of information that require constant mental calculations to determine vertical spacing. The 2-D displays indicate aircraft altitude only through textual annotation and the air traffic controller must subtract the altitude of one aircraft from another to determine vertical separation. These calculations involve labor intensive mental processes that are fatiguing and task the situational awareness of the controllers. Additionally, on-screen data clutter reduces situational awareness and task vigilance while adding to workload rather than reducing it.

To address the above, Air Force researchers have developed a 3-D display of air traffic data. The addition of the third dimension allows controllers to see vertical separation between aircraft. With this system, the traditional ‘data tag’ associated with each plane indicating aircraft ID, type, altitude, and speed is supplemented with a visual distance on the screen. A future track feature indicates where the plane is heading and alerts to a narrowing of separation.

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