The controller wearing a pair of shutter glasses at a 3D working position sees a three-dimensional display of a holding stack in the air – a holding pattern with several layers of circling aircraft.
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Air traffic in 3D: Always at the centre of things

DFS along with research institutions and manufacturers has started to test a stereoscopic visualisation and interaction concept for working positions in control centres. This concept has been developed as part of the iPort project (innovative airport), which is being co-financed by the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology within the scope of the fourth aviation research programme.

With the growing number of applications of 3D in the entertainment industry, one can easily imagine using the principle of stereoscopic vision for air traffic services. After all, air traffic control involves at least three dimensions.

Attempts have been made in the past — but the quality of the display was not good enough. The idea remains appealing as it would provide air traffic controllers with a more intuitive way of handling information such as flight levels. A way that is easier to grasp than by reading a number on a 2D display.

After comprehensive preliminary tests of the 3D imaging and interaction concept were conducted, a technical demonstrator was constructed.

The results were better than even the most optimistic expectations. Looking at the aircraft movements in the airspace is somewhat similar to looking into an aquarium. The effect is achieved by the combination of a high-quality, high-resolution projection system and an infrared-based optical tracking system to determine the exact viewpoint of the observer in the case of air traffic controllers. Thus, a movement of the observer triggers an instantaneous update of the rendered perspective of the 3D scenery leading to an astonishing real-life impression. This is achieved by using active shutter glasses with infrared reflectors.

But what does one do with a 3D display? For example, simulate holdings at Munich Airport. The display of holding patterns is quite cluttered at the moment, often with overlapping radar targets. When a large number of aircraft are involved, the display may be very confusing. The only way to achieve a clear overview is a separate display with the flight-progress data.

Air traffic controllers have been pleasantly surprised by the 3D principle's potential. In structured interviews carried out after two or three days of simulation, the 3D working position consoles were assessed as a convincing analysis platform for 3D imaging concepts. Of course, it was also confirmed that air traffic control does not happen on its own just because you can see everything in 3D. "I don't believe that we will see this type of system any time soon in operations," said one area controller.