David Edwards at desk

David Edwards Researches Air Transportation for NASA

For the past five years NASA has been collaborating with a associate professor David Edwards from the Department of Statistical Sciences and Operations Research to test the next generation of air transportation systems using statistical simulations.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen project, is designed to improve the communication, navigation, surveillance, and safety procedures that pilots and air traffic controllers utilize every day in guiding flight paths.

“The technologies NASA is developing are meant to assist pilots and air traffic controllers to deal with a heavier density of air traffic, improve productivity, scheduling, and ultimately prevent planes from running into each other,” said Edwards.

Edwards’ research for NASA began in 2012 when he joined the first phase of testing NextGen, called Air Technology Demonstration 1. His work focuses on testing flight-deck interval management (FIM) systems, which are avionic technologies and flight crew procedures for automatically achieving and maintaining aircraft spacing requirements.

“The idea is to achieve spacing between aircrafts so that they can better meet schedules,” Edwards said.

Edwards and his graduate students test the effectiveness of FIM technology by running computer simulation-based experiments of different in-flight scenarios which pilots and air traffic controllers might encounter. They then analyze the data from these experiments and use it to provide recommendations to NASA about how the FIM technology could be improved or implemented differently.

“Computer simulations are a way of emulating a physical experiment or physical process as closely as possible to what would happen in real life. So you can use the computer simulation as a more cost effective means of understanding the process,” said Edwards.

In order to improve the simulations NASA uses to test FIM systems, Edwards and his team have spent time modeling voice communication between pilots and air traffic controllers, clustering aircraft trajectories to improve the realism of simulations, and designing experiments that simulate interactions between FIM and non-FIM aircrafts in the same airspace. He’s spent five years working on different aspects of the NextGen project, but Edwards has yet to tire of the work.

“I do find it fascinating to work on problems like this and especially involve our graduate students in them,” Edwards said. “They’re learning about statistical methods in their coursework, so it’s good for them to work on problems in a more challenging context or even just in a real world context rather than a textbook problem; to actually get your hands dirty.”

Dr. Robert Leonard worked on the NextGen project for three years as Edwards’ doctoral research assistant and today is a visiting professor of information systems and analytics at Miami University in Ohio. He says that working on the project has definitely been helpful to his career as a professor of statistics, because it gave him first-hand experience in statistical methods while a student at VCU.

“One of the many benefits I gained from the work with Dr. Edwards is having directly used what I now teach,” said Leonard. “Rather than just thinking of examples and what could be, I can refer to specific projects and the collaborative efforts that went into them. This benefits my students as well. They can see that arriving at a solution it not always so straight-forward because experimentation is never really done. It’s sequential, and we’re always learning from our past experiences.”

Over the past year Edwards has been analyzing the data they’ve already collected from simulations to predict rare events, meaning cases in which the FIM system had to be interrupted or canceled by air traffic controllers. They hope that by cataloguing and studying times the FIM system failed, they can discover what is causing interruptions and fix it.

NextGen is still years away from widespread implementation on commercial flights, but VCU’s current contract with NASA ends this August. Edwards says he hopes to have more opportunities to work on the project in the future.

Written by Megan Schiffres