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Marinvent’s TASAR could change aviation’s future

Aug. 12, 2014, Montreal - You get on a plane assuming that the flight plan has been filed in advance and that the flight will follow a set route. The first assumption is quite right. Not so for the second.


August 12, 2014
By The Montreal Gazette

Topics

 

“Flight plans are filed well in advance,” said David
Wing, an aerospace research engineer at NASA Langley Research Center in
Hampton, Va., and principal investigator for TASAR, which stands for
Traffic Aware Strategic Aircrew Requests, a program being developed by
U.S. firm Engility Corp. for the agency to make aviation more efficient.

 

“But once you get into the air, things change. So you may not have had the most optimal route to start with.”

 

A
St-Bruno company is at the vanguard of an attempt by NASA to change all
that after the space agency’s Virginia centre contracted John Maris to
conduct the flight-test program for TASAR.

 

The founder of St.
Bruno’s Marinvent Corp. has a long-standing relationship with NASA and
has other impressive credentials. Marinvent, a small research firm,
pioneered the electronic flight bag, a digitized version supplanting the
overstuffed satchels that airline pilots used to have to carry around
with maps of the world’s airports and landing approaches, improving
efficiency and safety. That electronic version contained in a hand-held
tablet went on the market in 1996 and is now used by practically all the
world’s pilots.

 

So Marinvent’s U.S. subsidiary, Advanced Aerospace Solutions, was a natural to help NASA with TASAR’s inflight testing.

 

“TASAR
offers the pilot optimized routes (once airborne) and altitudes to
avoid, for instance,” said Maris. “Behind the scene, TASAR is doing all
these calculations, including traffic that might interfere with what
you’re asking (to air traffic controllers). It will save on fuel or
time, depending on what you’re asking it to do.”

 

“Think just of
the wind,” said Maris. “It changes every minute, it changes at every
altitude. The temperature also changes, which affects your performance.
With TASAR, you can download all of this stuff” and adjust your flight
plan accordingly, air traffic controllers willing.

 

His firm recently got an extension after a three-year program with NASA.

 

“We’re responsible for the whole (TASAR) flight-test program; designing it, executing it, the safety aspects, and so on.”

 

Wing
said that Maris’s firm was chosen as the “principal investigator” for
TASAR flight-test program because “they have a terrific flight-test
platform” — Marinvent’s distinctive Piaggio Avanti.

 

“It’s a
wonderful airplane and the way John has architected it makes it very
easy to put your research software on board and test it.”

 

Maris said that all that a totally new software program needs to plug into his Piaggio research test-bed “is a USB stick.”

 

Advanced
Aerospace Solutions “had to go through the review process here at NASA
for conducting flight tests … and passed it with flying colours,” said
Wing. “It was clear to the flight-test people here that John and his
company know what they’re doing and had dotted all their i’s and crossed
their t’s. It made my job really easy and allowed us to focus directly
on TASAR’s technical work.”

 

TASAR is designed to piggyback on to
ADS-B, a satellite surveillance system for the world’s aircraft
currently being developed and that has been mandated for U.S. airplanes
by 2020.

 

ADS-B, for automatic dependent
surveillance — broadcast, is a key component of an epic global
changeover in the world of aviation, from a spotty, incomplete patchwork
of radar-based surveillance systems that can lose track of an airplane —
think Malaysian Airlines 370 — to a satellite-based air navigation that
covers the planet. Nav Canada is one of the leaders in the field with
the upcoming Aireon satellite system, a joint venture with U.S.-based
Iridium Communications.

 

“NASA is trying to encourage people to
adopt ADS-B (receivers),” said Maris. “That’s where you get (satellite)
data and do something clever with it. For transoceanic traffic, like
MH370, airliners have to keep quite a distance apart because there’s no
radar, so it’s procedural control with a huge separation (required
between aircraft in the vicinity). With ADS-B, you have the ability …
to negotiate with the other aircraft, with an ATC approval, for a climb
that’s much more realistic. You can pack more airplanes in your airspace
safely, stuff like that.”

 

“When TASAR came out of the lab, it was
an application,” said Maris. “It runs. So what is there to test? Well,
the moment you stick it into a plane, it stops working — immediately.
Because the data is ‘noisy’. It doesn’t come through with perfect
precision. It doesn’t work like it did in the lab, there’s all kinds of
extraneous junk thrown at it, the airplane doesn’t co-operate.”

 

“There
are all kinds of things. So we’re debugging not just TASAR, but we’re
getting some of the leading-edge data on ADS-B itself. We’re at the
forefront of ADS-B research. Over New York City, we’re running seven
computers, analyzing it all with very great precision: what percentage
of the traffic that (is currently equipped with) ADS-B are we receiving?
What’s our initial range for ADS-B traffic? What’s our dropout rate,
how many latencies (time delays in getting data in) do we get? How does
turbulence affect it? The human factor in using TASAR — did it help or
hinder?”

 

Air traffic controllers routinely deny requests by
aircraft crews to change flight patterns, including altitude and
direction, for fear that they may edge too close to other traffic in the
area. TASAR is designed to counter that by beaming better information
faster about position and proximity to other planes.

 

“Basically, it’s a surveillance mechanism where aircraft receive data about traffic in their vicinity,” said Wing.

 

The
GPS system “broadcasts information continually, once per second, far
better than radar, which is once every 12 seconds — and much less
accurate than GPS.”

 

TASAR is not specifically designed as a safety
feature, but more as a tool for airlines to improve their efficiency —
shorter routes, less “separation” (distance) between aircraft on
congested air corridors, optimal air corridors to reduce the effects of
bad weather, as well as boosting ground performance.

 

“It could
reduce ramp delays,” said Maris, “or getting lost on the ground, or
going onto the wrong runway, or botched taxi clearances.”

 

The
more efficient a flight route is from gate to gate, the less time the
aircraft spends on the ground not making money. Multiplied by the number
of airplanes in an airline’s fleet, it could add up to huge savings for
airlines, said Maris.

 

TASAR is an ideal application for ADS-B,
said Wing, one of the first apps that is being developed for the nascent
aircraft-tracking system.

 

But that also means that getting
airlines to install such programs is an uphill battle at the moment.
Wing estimated the cost of installing ADS-B receivers at “possibly
upwards of $100,000” per aircraft cockpit, a hefty sum for perpetually
cash-strapped airlines.

 

But Wing said that two carriers have shown
interest so far — Alaska Airlines and Virgin America — and that he
hopes to have more on board by next year.

 

Marinvent’s success in
developing technologies used worldwide by airlines, air forces and space
agencies does not translate easily into mass hirings and tens of
millions in windfall contracts. By design, the company is in extremely
technical, narrow and advanced niches. That, said Maris, means
developing technologies that are at first derided as unworkable, then
tentatively developed as a long-shot, then proven to be viable, and only
then universally adopted.

 

“By the time the industry catches up to us, Marinvent will be on to the next (technology). That’s how we make our living.”

 

“Our
main function is to take technology at low level of maturity; TRL
(technology readiness level) 1 is you and I talking about anti-gravity
on a napkin. We think we can do anti-gravity … Level 3 is the lab
stage.”

 

“TRL 9 is, roughly speaking, fully demonstrated in a
representative environment — we got the anti-gravity pod, it’s working,
we flew the boss in it. More and more realistic is representative of the
7th stage; that’s where we are with TASAR, at 6 or 7.”

 

“It’s
flying real airplanes and real airways with TASAR. Before we flew it, it
was 3 — a good idea that was in the lab. At Marinvent, we’re very
rapidly crossing what is universally known in the industry as the valley
of death — the very difficult transition between a great idea and
something you can actually put into effect. A lot of really good
projects die there.”

 

“What our aircraft does — and it’s one of the
very few in the world that will do this — is to allow you to take
something that’s very low TRL and without cutting any holes in the
airplane or running wires or putting in displays, we can immediately run
that software — all we need to run TASAR is a USB stick. We just saved
someone $1 million a year.”