With air traffic becoming busier every year, how do controllers train to the limits? At Nasa’s Ames Research Center, they can simulate any airport in the world at the click of a button.

The skies are getting crowded. Every year more and more commercial aircraft join the world’s fleets. In the last 40 years the number of passengers flown on the world’s airlines has multiplied 10-fold to three billion a year. By 2030, that’s expected to be six billion a year. Keeping track of all those planes is proving to be a challenge.

Take the winter storms which have battered the Midwest and Southeast United States in recent weeks; they led to many thousands of flights being cancelled. Getting those planes back into the air, resuming their schedules and getting thousands of people to where they need to be is a massive task. It calls for sophisticated technology, and highly trained controllers.

In California, the Nasa Ames Research Center allows controllers to practice their skills in a 360-degree simulation of an airport control tower. The simulator can test extreme weather at any airport in the world. Want to change your airport from Heathrow to Chicago O’Hare, or Ulan Bataar’s Chinggis Khan? Power the simulator down, restart it, and you can choose any of the world’s airports to train on.

If Los Angeles’ air traffic staff, for instance, wanted to see how their airport would deal with a sudden snowstorm, all it takes is a few clicks, and their California simulation suddenly takes on a more wintry look.

Now researchers are planning to create the next generation of air traffic systems that can deal with tomorrow’s even busier airspace.

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