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The Airspace Operations Laboratory (AOL) is bringing Augmented Reality to future air traffic management systems
(Nov 20, 2020)
Augmented Reality (AR) is quickly becoming a key driver in today's tech-driven society. From AR apps on smartphones to increasingly ubiquitous mixed-reality headsets, AR holds the promise to transform virtually every aspect of our lives, including entertainment, manufacturing, medicine and public safety.

NASA, led by the Airspace Operations Laboratory (AOL) at NASA Ames Research Center, is utilizing AR technologies to develop innovative tools which will make it easier to manage future air traffic demands. Building on years of expertise in Air Traffic Management (ATM) systems, these tools may be useful for the management of new vehicle systems, such as Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), or drones. Today, technology is driving numerous beneficial applications for UAS, from product delivery, agricultural monitoring, emergency/disaster response to infrastructure inspection. AR will give air traffic managers the ability visualize complex data, making it easier for people on the ground to monitor operations of the variety of vehicles that populate our national airspace.

The software driving these innovations was developed by the AOL. A gateway application reads the data from traffic-management systems and an augmented-reality application displays the data in an immersive 3D visual environment. Leveraging the capabilities of commercially available mixed-reality headsets, the augmented-reality application will allow air traffic managers, public officials and emergency responders to see a visual overlay of flight patterns, and provides control over several viewing parameters, such as location, angle, zoom, and rotation of the view. Through hand gestures and eye-tracking technologies, users will potentially be able to select items virtually, creating an immersive, interactive air traffic management system. Someday, it may even be possible for anyone to point a smartphone camera up into the sky to see the traffic route and vehicle data of a drone flying overhead.

Augmented Reality will be a key element of NASA's future research in Advanced Air Mobility (AAM), which aims to develop future air transportation systems. In the near future, the skies will be filled with a variety of unmanned vehicles, operating in ways which don't adhere to traditional standards. AR will give NASA researchers an additional tool to test new air traffic management systems by mixing real-world environments with virtual data visualizations.

As these new vehicles become more commonplace, and the airspace gets more crowded, new air traffic management infrastructure will be needed to maintain safe operations. According to Joey Mercer of the Airspace Operations Lab, "Uncrewed aircraft are more and more becoming a part of our lives. As we look at how to safely integrate these vehicles into already complex city infrastructures and airspaces, augmented reality is a great tool, with a lot of potential for how we think of managing our skies in the future."
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Last Updated: March 18, 2024