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Greener flights, thanks to air traffic controllers

G-Online

Pollution

air traffic control

Credit: NASA

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Aircraft are notoriously high carbon emitters, but flying could soon become greener thanks to a new air traffic simulator.

The Air Traffic and Operations Management Simulator (ATOMS), developed at the Canberra campus of the University of New South Wales, Australia, will allow air traffic controllers to assess new flight procedures for safety, noise pollution and carbon emissions, according to the developer, computer scientist Sameer Alam.

The program shows how changes in flight procedures for a Boeing 747 flight from Sydney to Melbourne could cut fuel consumption by 500kg and noise by 35%.

"It can simulate existing and future air traffic control procedures, showing the resulting emission and noise patterns," Alam said. "In the future we hope that air traffic controllers would use the system to modify flight paths to reduce emissions and noise."

Current flight paths often follow a network of old radar sites, which are not used anymore, instead of the most direct route. Modifying flight paths can make use of favourable winds or lead to a shorter route, saving fuel.

Alam said that ATOMS may one day even be installed in planes so that pilots could use it to chart routes in real time and take advantage of favourable conditions, such as good weather, instead of having to follow a predetermined route. This is called free flight and can help to save fuel, as well as lightening the load for over-worked air traffic controllers.

ATOMS is being used to prepare a cost/benefit analysis of free flight for Australian airports, and could be ready as soon as next year.

The versatile program is already being used by Air Services Australia to make an emissions inventory of current airline procedures.

"We're using it to develop a baseline to improve from," said Robert Peake, an advisor at Air Services Australia.

He said his team is particularly interested in using the program to evaluate power-off descents, where a plane glides in to land rather than using the engines. This manoeuvre cuts down fuel use and noise - good news for both the environment and for people living under flight paths.