An Olympic Legacy In The Sky: Heli-Star Demonstrated Potential For Vertical Flight In Urban Areas

August 01, 1997

The Centennial Olympic Games are quickly fading into history, but a research and development project conducted in Atlanta during last summer's games could have a long-term impact on improving transportation in crowded cities.

Supported by the Federal Aviation Administration, Operation Heli-STAR (Helicopter Short-Haul Transportation and Aviation Research) showed that communications, navigation and surveillance (CNS) equipment based on the Global Positioning System (GPS) could reliably track helicopters operating in large metropolitan areas.

"Operation Heli-STAR showed that the technology is here now to do low-altitude traffic control in urban areas," said Charles M. "Chuck" Stancil, manager of the Aerospace Sciences Branch of the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI). "Everything that we planned and designed for the system worked. We could track the aircraft, communicate with them, send weather information, and even change the mission just by using digitized messages."

Air traffic control radar now provides the primary means for monitoring aircraft in flight, but ground clutter caused by obstructions such as tall buildings prevents tracking low-altitude flights in urban areas. That has restricted development of helicopter transportation in cities where clogged highways would make vertical flight an attractive alternative to ground transportation for passengers and cargo. Some 88 aircraft equipped with this technology participated in Heli-STAR during the Games period in Atlanta. The aircraft used on-board GPS systems to determine their own positions, then reported that information every few seconds to a central ground station through a very high frequency (VHF) data link. Based on a system of earth-orbiting satellites, GPS provides extremely accurate position information -- and is not affected by the ground clutter that prevents use of radar.

In addition to providing information for ground controllers, Heli-STAR also sent data about all project aircraft operating in the area to multi-function displays installed aboard many of the helicopters. This information helped pilots watch out for nearby air traffic. The displays also included information on flight routes and ground obstacles such as transmission towers.

"This was the first time this technology has ever been used on such a large scale in this way, and it was very successful," reported Stancil. "Heli-STAR was operating in a real-world situation, carrying real cargo, serving real customers and working in an operational environment guided by air traffic controllers."

On its busiest day, the project processed 83,000 aircraft position reports between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., tracking more than 60 aircraft engaged in a wide range of cargo delivery and public safety missions, including critical security requirements. Development of Heli-STAR began in 1994 with the FAA seeking to identify potential safety and operational issues and solutions for low-flying aircraft operating at events such as the Olympics. This requirement expanded later to address requirements for routes and airspace needed to support time-sensitive parcel package cargo.

Heli-STAR used 12 heliports strategically located around the Atlanta area to accommodate a flight schedule dictated by the needs of cargo shippers. Routes were established to minimize noise and avoid the restricted airspace set up around Olympic venues. On the ground, sophisticated equipment used bar-coding and an extensive computer network to track cargo as it moved through the transportation system to its final destination.

Heli-STAR was intended both to demonstrate the feasibility of the GPS-based equipment and to gather research information for development of future large-scale helicopter and low-altitude operations. Information obtained on cargo volume and costs should aid economic decisions that will have to be made for such systems.

"The lessons learned are really a collection of planning tips that would enable anybody else to do this anywhere in the continental United States, Alaska or Hawaii," Stancil explained. "You can literally set up a checklist based on what came out of Heli-STAR. If you do all these things, you will have touched all the bases necessary."

The Heli-STAR program was itself the result of cooperation among numerous government and industry groups who shared the $10 million cost of planning, developing and implementing the project.

The FAA's General Aviation and Vertical Flight Program office served as the lead government office, and worked closely with the Agency's Southern Region and its Flight Standards and Airports Offices. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Advanced General Aviation Transport Experiment (AGATE) program provided the CNS equipment through a program called the Atlanta Communications Experiment.

Technical assistance came from the Science Applications International (SAIC), the FAA's technical support contractor. SAIC contracted with GTRI to provide local project management, cargo operations, data collection and analysis. The Project Operations Center was also established at Georgia Tech's Cobb County Research Facility, near Dobbins Air Force Base.

The helicopter and private industry's contributions came through the Helicopter Association International (HAI), and the Atlanta Vertical Flight Association (AVFA). The Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA) coordinated the public safety elements of the project.

ARNAV Systems provided the CNS equipment, while the Harris Corporation provided the air traffic control workstations. Other participants included Pan American Weather Services, Petroleum Helicopters, Inc., Genisys Operation, Albert and Associates, Inc., CommuniQuest, and GNSS Corporation. U.S. Department of Defense agencies provided further assistance with equipment and certification.

Though the system worked very well, Heli-STAR aircraft carried less cargo than anticipated. Two factors combined to reduce cargo transportation: the absence of the gridlock that had been forecast for Atlanta's highways, and security arrangements surrounding Olympic visits by the President and Vice President.

Stancil believes the success of Heli-STAR leaves developers of urban vertical flight programs with mostly non-technical issues to resolve.

"It's really a public perception issue now," he said. "The technical and engineering issues related to CNS are now being resolved. Heli-STAR demonstrated that you can manage aircraft in a safe manner in an urban environment with this technology. The problem is how the public perceives helicopter activity in close proximity to where they live and work."

Georgia Institute of Technology

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