The test of the new technology was supposed to happen face-to-face. That was the way it always worked. But this time, it wasn’t possible.
The COVID-19 pandemic put a snag in the Federal Aviation Administration’s usual process to test and validate the NextGen Weather Processor, a system built by Raytheon Intelligence & Space that will help the agency better manage air traffic during inclement weather.
With in-person testing ruled out, the engineers behind the system did what engineers do best: They solved the problem and went virtual.
“We really jumped into it pretty easily, first starting with using Zoom for Government and then using Virtual Network Computing into our lab,” said Barry Hausmann, NextGen Weather Processor chief engineer for RI&S. “Everything fell into place rather quickly for the Raytheon Technologies team working remotely from home. Showing the FAA some test dry runs convinced them to get on board with a virtual test.”
The team’s innovative approach has won recognition from the Air Traffic Control Association, which has honored the group with its annual team award for outstanding achievement.
The team remotely set up Virtual Network Computing, also called VNC, in the NextGen Weather Processor Lab at its site in Marlborough, Massachusetts. Using VNC, the team controlled the lab computers from home, seeing exactly what was displayed on the lab’s computer screens, and interacting as if sitting right there at the keyboard. The team also used the VNC connection at a second Raytheon Intelligence & Space lab in Omaha, Nebraska.
“It was just like being there,” Hausmann said. “We could bring up views of the program, the Monitoring and Control display or the Aviation Weather Display. We could see how the systems were behaving. It worked very well for the team.”
The FAA is keen on getting the new system up and running. The NextGen Weather Processor will consolidate four legacy weather systems and give operators a single, high-resolution picture using algorithms from MIT Lincoln Laboratory, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA.
Inclement weather, including thunderstorms, snowstorms, wind shear, icing and fog, creates potentially hazardous conditions in the nation’s airspace system. These conditions are, by far, the largest cause of flight delays. In an average year, inclement weather is the reason for nearly 70 percent of all delays.
A unified picture can help address these weather-related delays.
“Air traffic controllers currently use weather information on their displays that is constrained only to levels of precipitation intensity. NWP will provide additional weather updates such as icing, turbulence and reflectivity, and provide aviation-specific weather predictions that extend out to eight hours,” said Jack McAuley, director of Air Traffic Systems Automation for RI&S.
The system ingests more than 10 gigabytes of data every hour from weather radars, environmental satellites, lightning, meteorological observations from surface stations and aircraft and government forecast models, feeding that information through sophisticated algorithms that churn out consistent, aviation-specific weather information “at a glance.”
To make sure the FAA was comfortable with virtual testing, the team held several test runs on Zoom, Hausmann said.
“We showed them what they would see during a formal test, which were the same things that they would have seen if they were sitting beside us in the lab,” he said.
Then came the actual testing: Eight hours a day for two weeks. The team checked off 330 requirements with a 99 percent pass rate, “which is really, really good,” McAuley said.
Virtual testing has taken hold elsewhere in RI&S, McAuley said, with other programs building on the success and finding new ways to work remotely with customers.
“It’s looking like in the future that we’re going to do more formal testing this way,” he said. “And it probably just won’t be testing that we’ll be doing remotely. Other actions that would’ve required us to be physically on site might be done remotely like integration support, for instance. Despite the pandemic, we found a way to carry on and not miss a beat.”