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Cleared For Take-Off: Air Traffic Control Flies into the Cloud

Imagine it’s a summer Friday at Hartsfield-Jackson International, the world’s busiest airport. A thunderstorm this morning has broken dozens of connections in and out of Atlanta. Departing planes crawl in a long line along the tarmac. A few thousand feet up, some pilots are free to land while others groan as they turn into their fourth lap. Everybody wants faster updates from the control tower.

Cloudy With a Chance of Data: Storing air traffic management data in the cloud is part of GE’s push to build the Industrial Internet.

Air traffic delays don’t just spoil meeting plans or dinner at home. A second layer of frustration comes from not knowing what is happening. Even the pilots use the intercoms to vent: “Folks, I am still waiting to hear what gate we have been assigned.” Or, “We are 22nd in line to take off, and I am not sure what the hold-up is.”

But what if technology could solve the information problem and tame the delays? That solution is cloud computing, the same massive computer data farms that already hold your Gmail email, Picasa pictures, or Spotify music. “The cloud will get passengers from A to B quicker,” says Mike Durling, manager of GE’s supervisory controls and systems integration lab, at GE Global Research. “It allows speedy decisions about the plane’s position and path, allowing more seamless trips.”

Right now, air-traffic control uses technology that is hosted locally. A plane relies on the information it gets from the local tower. Air-traffic information has not yet been networked. But in the future, pilots will be able to fly into a figurative cloud of information that receives feeds from all over the world.

Soon air traffic controllers, whether in Atlanta or Zurich, will share real-time data through the cloud (really huge, earth-bound warehouses filled with thousands of data servers). Pilots will use that information to determine routes and altitude and prepare for any delays that may be brewing. Instead of radioing the tower, a pilot can pull down gate assignments herself, shaving minutes from the flight.

Durling’s lab won a contract this year to add cloud computing capabilities to ‘NextGen’ Air Traffic Management technology, the name given to a new National Airspace System due to be rolled out in the U.S. by 2025. NextGen will haul the country’s air traffic control from an aging ground-based system to a satellite-based system.

One benefit of such an upgrade is that journey times will shorten. So this new technology means less fuel-guzzling and lower emissions. Looked at a different way, shorter trips mean lower ticket prices.

Cloud computing is already a popular way to store music or word processing. But it’s been slow to progress to the aviation sector. The concept’s the same. Various users can tap into a remote location where there are no limits on data storage, performance and agility. GE teams feed the cloud with reams of data about wind speed, altitude and journey times, which are the building blocks of larger models that manage air traffic.

“The cloud fills in the gaps between the different independent platforms, such as those in the cockpit and on the ground,” says Durling. It reduces the impact of unknown factors—such as poor weather, off-schedule airplanes or the lack of empty gates—that add time to the journey.

So if you’re reading this at 10,000 feet while waiting for a landing slot—help’s on the way.

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