Front & Center

Dave Hughes visits the Federal Aviation Administration’s William J Hughes Technical Center and learns that alongside advanced ATC simulation, unmanned aviation and commercial space are some of the vital aspects of its testing and development activities

The FAA’s William J Hughes Technical Center (WJHTC) in Atlantic City, New Jersey, is leading the National Airspace System (NAS) into the future. The centre is using unrivalled air traffic control (ATC) modelling and simulation capability to evaluate entirely new capabilities and determine how they interact with legacy systems and software.

“One of [WJHTC’s] premier capabilities is the ability to model and simulate anything that is currently happening, about to happen or expected to happen in the airspace controlled by the FAA,” says Shelley Yak, the centre’s director. “That covers operations in a lot of airspace.”

The FAA controls over 30 million square miles of airspace, which amounts to about 17 per cent of the earth’s surface. This includes the NAS over the continental United States, Alaska and Hawaii, with some of the busiest airspace in the world near major metropolitan area airports. In addition, the agency is responsible for airspace over the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and the Gulf of Mexico. The Oakland En Route Center alone controls aircraft flying over about 10 per cent of the earth’s surface, covering the Pacific Ocean almost as far west of California as Japan and the Philippines.

To support the control of thousands of aircraft in this vast domain, WJHTC has duplicates of the key systems and software that help controllers and air traffic managers run domestic and international operations. This unmatched collection of ATC equipment is housed under one roof.

There is arguably no other collocated complex of air traffic control and air traffic management laboratories in the world that can match WJHTC for its breadth and prowess. In fact, many air navigation service providers and ATC experts around the world eagerly await the results of WJHTC research reported in publicly available technical papers. The centre’s staff of 3,000 FAA and contract workers includes more than 100 with doctorates. They are fond of saying they ‘live on the beach and work on the future’.

Atlantic City

Atlantic City is a beach-resort town that has been crazy about aviation since 1910 when a pilot trained by the Wright Brothers started flying demonstrations along with famous aviator Glenn Curtiss. Pioneering pilots came to Atlantic City because its beaches are flat and provide a built-in supply of spectators during the summer. In the early 1900s, most Americans had never seen an aircraft in flight.

WJHTC was born in 1958, the same year Congress created the FAA. Today, the research and development complex contains more than 460,000 square feet of laboratory space. A visitor could get lost in the warrens of laboratories found in several buildings where new labs are constantly being established on everything from cyber security to state-of-the art digital communications systems.

Some of the labs back up existing systems and software that keep the NAS running every day and allow engineers to troubleshoot problems, test new software before it goes live and perform all sorts of maintenance and support functions. WJHTC is a 24/7 facility, 365 days a year.

Pamela Whitley, the FAA’s acting assistant administrator for NextGen, says the agency is positioning WJHTC for an entirely new type of future that breaks completely from the types of analogue legacy systems developed and fielded during the second half of the twentieth century. “The technical centre has already helped set the stage for the future of air traffic management [ATM] by putting the FAA in the position to complete the NextGen digital infrastructure,” Whitley says. “We will build on that success in the years ahead.”

In the twenty-first century, the NAS will be a place where major automation platforms such as En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM), the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS) and a new tool, the Terminal Flight Data Manager (TFDM) are maintained and improved to serve the needs of controllers. ERAM is the automation platform for en route centres, STARS is the platform for terminal radar approach control (TRACON) facilities and towers and TFDM serves as the surface management capability for towers.

Entirely new capabilities such as Data Communications (Data Comm) are coming online in the form of software that resides in other systems like the ones just mentioned. You can’t go to an ATC facility and point at a Data Comm box because it doesn’t exist. It isn’t a discrete system, but rather a capability. Testing Data Comm to make sure it works right before it is deployed in a flight-critical environment is a matter of setting up systems and software for end-to-end testing. As aircraft move gate-to-gate, some capabilities must be available on the surface and for all phases of flight to support those activities.

“Data Comm is a capability that takes advantage of existing automation platforms such as ERAM,” says Peter Muraca, who leads the WJHTC Data Comm avionics lab. “It also takes advantage of existing infrastructure such as FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure and avionics already installed on aircraft, plus air-to-ground communications technologies in use today. Data Comm transforms all of this into a unique new capability. All of these subcomponents have to come together for end-to-end testing of Data Comm.”

“Test and evaluation has never been more challenging,” Yak says. “We have created other ATM laboratories that include those linked with legacy systems. Then we have tested and retested everything, so when the Data Comm software goes live, it [will be] ready for prime time.”

The FAA also is accommodating new entrants of the NAS, including unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and commercial space operations. One example where new concepts of operations and tools are being tested for these applications at WJHTC is the NextGen Integration and Evaluation Capability (NIEC) lab.

NIEC has a modular setup that includes a tower simulation area with a 300-degree screen for the view from the tower; an air traffic control suite with consoles that behave like ERAM and STARS control stations; a cockpit simulator; and a multipurpose area that can be used to display weather or traffic-management data and can simulate an airline operations centre. The cockpit simulator is a Level 5 Airbus A320. It is programmed with the same high-fidelity aerodynamic model used for pilot certification.


NIEC leverages existing NAS operational systems and high-fidelity, real-time simulation capabilities to create an integrated, flexible and reconfigurable environment. Such an environment can be tailored for NextGen research as well as test and evaluation. NIEC can provide a futuristic NextGen gate-to-gate visualisation environment with advanced data-collection capabilities to support integration and evaluation of new technologies and concepts.

NIEC’s capability of evaluating new technology, capabilities and procedures operating along legacy systems supports the transition to NextGen and its ultimate goal of achieving Trajectory Based Operations (TBO). TBO involves managing an aircraft’s trajectory both tactically and strategically using a series of time estimates in all phases of flight – even when an aircraft is taxiing on the surface. “The technical centre is prepared to meet the challenges of testing and evaluating TBO operations as the FAA moves the NAS into initial TBO operations to its predicted future end state,” Yak says.

Above all, NIEC is a rapid prototyping laboratory where 1 million lines of customised software code allow for reconfiguration of a virtual NAS for the latest experiment. It simulates systems such as ERAM and STARS so new things can be tried on these platforms. NIEC complements the unique NAS facilities and aviation-based equipment at WJHTC. The lab allows for more than one project at the same time. NIEC can also interact with other WJHTC laboratories, and the tech centre can link to other FAA, NASA, Department of Defense, industry and university labs for more comprehensive or specialised studies.

WJHTC also has a Target Generation Facility (TGF) to drive aircraft targets in ATC simulations. A TGF pilot usually controls 5–10 individual aircraft targets while interacting with controllers simulating activity in towers, TRACONs and en route centres. In one scenario, 24 pilots controlled aircraft in 12 sectors and controlled more than 100 aircraft in Philadelphia airspace.

The next step will be to use artificial intelligence (AI) agents to generate controller actions. “We just did some testing where we demonstrated the capability of doing handoffs between sectors in the en route environment; where intelligent-agent controllers handed off a target to another agent controller in another sector,” says Richard Smail, TGF manager. “It was all done with the automation for an ATC simulation. The AI capability is being tested on a small scale, but will be used eventually on NAS‑wide simulations with thousands of aircraft targets.”

“The aim is to have a gate-to-gate simulation from, say, Los Angeles to New York, where we want to capture every phase of flight,” Smail said. “So if we want to focus on studying arrivals at a particular airport, we can have AI agents handle the other phases of flight so we can have human controllers handle the key aspect we want to focus on.”

TGF can also interact with WJHTC’s Cockpit Simulation Facility (CSF) and its diverse fleet of commercial and general aviation flight deck simulators. The facility provides a full suite of resources and services to research and development (R&D) teams interested in studying human-in-the-loop flight deck technologies and procedures.

CSF has played an important role in pioneering FAA research on the display of weather information in the cockpit, the use of data communications and even how pilots make decisions based on lighting and signage on the airport surface. FAA weather researchers collaborated with Rockwell Collins and with the MIT Lincoln Laboratory.

A recent study with the FAA’s Weather Research branch evaluated current and forecast icing products on an electronic flight bag. This human-in-the-loop study sought to assess pilot reactions when current and forecast icing products are available to them during their inflight simulation.

CSF and other WJHTC facilities can also support companies under co-operative R&D agreements or other transaction agreements. American Airlines, for example, performed human-factors research at the facility to design an interface for data link communications on existing aircraft avionics. CSF has collaborated with Boeing on technical exchanges and on distributed simulation exercises.

High-Speed Network

A high-speed network has been installed from WJHTC to various points in the United States and Europe to provide connections to remote flight simulators or other laboratories. A total of 24 connections are possible with enough capacity on each channel to remotely connect a flight simulator with position, voice and data link data to TGF as well as to any of WJHTC’s ATC laboratories.

The FAA’s NextGen UAS Laboratory is collocated with NIEC. The facility has seven high-fidelity UAS simulators that comprise a representative sample of UAS platforms in the NAS: from small to large, slow to fast, low- to high-altitude, short- to long-endurance and lower- to higher autonomy.

The lab’s capabilities also include prototype research tools and technologies, a robust detect-and-avoid testbed, extensive data analysis and storage solutions, fast-time simulation capabilities and Monte Carlo modelling capabilities and a wide range of software and web-based services.

The seven UAS ground stations include some workstations that control specific UAS models, and two that are universal remote-control stations. The workstations linked to specific models of UAS include:

  • A desktop pilot standalone trainer, which simulates the controls for a Global Hawk – a large, highly automated unmanned air vehicle manufactured by Northrop Grumman that has a service ceiling in excess of 60,000 feet.
  • A General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper (formerly known as the Predator-B) pilot station and sensor operator station. This workstation enables the FAA to simulate a large UAS, in this case weighing up to 10,000 pounds and with a service ceiling of 50,000 feet.
  • A Boeing Insitu ScanEagle workstation that simulates a small unmanned aircraft under 55 pounds. The ScanEagle simulator is built upon actual UAS ground-control station equipment, so it is fully representative of the hardware and software used in the fielded interface. WJHTC has at times operated a ScanEagle unmanned air vehicle at a nearby military restricted area.
  • A Textron Shadow 200 RQ-7V custom-built for the WJHTC as a hardware-in-the-loop simulator using actual Shadow 200 flight-control avionics. It incorporates both a simulated ground data terminal and a simulated payload computer to model the control station. The simulator can support studies for TBO.
  • A Boeing Insitu Common Open Mission Management Command and Control (ICOMC2) workstation that can be operated in a number of different configurations, ranging from a laptop to a fully distributed operations center comprised of several large-scale monitors. This workstation has a universal interface, which allows it to establish a communications link with any UAS adhering to the NATO Standard Agreement (STANAG) 4586 protocol.
  • The Vigilant Spirit Control Station (VSCS) is a universal application built around a simple user interface that allows for a minimal number of operators to simultaneously control, manage and operate multiple UAS sharing dissimilar performance characteristics and systems design. Like the ICOMC2, this workstation has a universal interface that allows it to link to any UAS with a communications link complying with NATO STANAG 4586. VSCS was developed by the US Air Force Research Lab.
  • An MQ-8C Fire Scout simulator of the unmanned autonomous helicopter system developed by Northrop Grumman. The simulator incorporates fully representative hardware and software via its simulator pilot and sensor operator stations, and it enhances the lab’s capabilities by enabling the evaluation of complex unmanned rotorcraft operations, including beyond radio line-of-sight operations.

These seven workstations facilitate high-fidelity human-in-the-loop simulations of all aspects of UAS operations in the NAS.

UAS studies conducted at WJHTC in fiscal 2017 included simulations of ScanEagle and quadcopter flights below 2,500 feet in the Northern California TRACON airspace; validation of Detect and Avoid Equipment and Command and Control Link Minimum Operational Performance Standards; ATC receipt and display of contingency UAS operation information in en route and terminal airspace; and capability assessments of small-UAS detection systems around airports.

NIEC also studied space vehicle operations using a hazard risk assessment and management tool developed by ACTA Inc. to compute debris hazard volumes from the operational failure of a space vehicle. When a failure is detected, hazard volumes are calculated based on the vehicle characteristics, last known position and last known velocity vector. Failures were simulated in five geographic regions. A NIEC 3-D tool was developed to show different space vehicle operations scenarios with graphics including ATC sector boundaries, which could be toggled on or off. Other NIEC studies in fiscal 2017 included:

  • A joint WJHTC-Florida NextGen Test Bed (FTB) project to deliver aircraft intent and status data from different flight-management systems to ground systems. FTB is an FAA NextGen research and demonstration facility at the Embry Riddle Aeronautical University adjacent to Daytona Beach International Airport. This study analysed trajectory modelling improvements in ground based systems. The simulation study made use of ERAM and Time Based Flow Management in Denver Center airspace.
  • A human-in-the-loop simulation studying controller situational awareness and workload in NIEC’s virtual tower as the controllers used separation standards based on Wake Recategorisation (Wake RECAT). The FAA has been reducing the separation between aircraft in certain size categories based on analysis of the effects of wake turbulence on various models of aircraft. The study also analysed new controller decision-support tools that can display Wake RECAT separation distances.
  • A human factors study using an angle of attack (AOA) indicator installed in NIEC’s high-fidelity non-motion cockpit simulator. The study focused on various types of AOA displays to aid pilots in diagnosis of air data systems failures in transport-category aircraft, and recovery from upsets such as stalls at high altitudes. The results of this study will be used to guide the test plan for related upset recovery training scenarios in Level D simulators.

WJHTC also operates a separate Airport Facilities Terminal Integration Laboratory (AFTIL), which features two sophisticated tower simulators and an associated full-scale, tower-cab mockup shop. The Cab Simulation Suite creates a realistic 3-D model of dozens of US airports and simulates aircraft movements and air traffic operations, allowing controllers to visualise changes to the airport or tower and their effects on how controllers work and on operational safety. The suite features 52 55-inch LED monitors, oriented vertically from floor to ceiling and connected in a 360-degree ring to mimic a tower’s out-of-window view.

“If an airport is making changes to infrastructure, this is a planning resource,” says Anthony Rodriguez, AFTIL manager. “Airport officials are making multi-million-dollar decisions, so there is no substitute for this. They can spend a little money now at the lab, or they can spend a lot of money later fixing problems.”