The FAA is beta-testing a new air traffic tool with the help of data from SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, a task that signals a major shift in how the agency will manage restricted airspace around future space launches and reentries.

The effort is meant to limit the size and amount of time airspace remains off limits to commercial airlines or other National Airspace System (NAS) users during space vehicle ascent or return operations, as well as to automate the non-optimal procedures that air traffic controllers perform by hand today during a launch or recovery. SpaceX and the FAA are partners in the project. 

Limiting the effects of space operations on U.S. airspace is seen as critical, as the FAA expects a drastic increase even several years from now in the pace of orbital and suborbital launches in the near future—an increase in the U.S. alone to one launch daily, from approximately once per month.  Fueling the action is a budding commercial space sector that plans to begin offering a plethora of services, from manned suborbital joyrides and high-altitude balloon ventures to air-dropped or vertical launch of new breeds of small satellites and miniature “cubesats.”

“There’s an increasingly complex integration into the airspace,” says Michael Romanowski, director of space integration for the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. “From oceanic splashdowns to overland reentries in the continental U.S., it’s a challenge.” The FAA, by statute, is in charge of regulating launches and reentries as well as protecting civil airspace from potential collisions between vehicles.

Romanowski says the FAA issued permits for 19 commercial space launches in 2014, up from 18 in 2013, and three in 2012—but indicators show the tempo of the launch and reentry operations accelerating. “By regulation, companies have to take part in pre-application discussions with the FAA in advance of submitting an application for a permit,” Romanowski says. “We have ongoing pre-application discussions for 39 projects. There’s a real business case that has evolved.”

The FAA today identifies the airspace that could be affected by a launch or reentry and how long it could be affected—expanding the bounds of the area to consider possible contingencies— and shuts down the area to keep out air traffic for the duration of the planned event. During the activity, a Joint Space Operations Group working at the FAA’s Air Traffic Control Systems Command Center in Warrenton, Virginia, manually keys in position updates and evolving hazard areas from the launch or reentry vehicle into the traffic-management system for a situational display that FAA air traffic managers use for tactical and strategic decisions in case contingencies occur.

“We’re starting to see a significant increase in the frequency of spaceflight operations, so that model won’t work anymore,” says Daniel Murray, manager of the FAA’s Space Transportation Development Division. “In the past, there were only a couple of places in the country where a launch could take place—coastal locations where there is an opportunity to get out over water quickly—and given that there were only 6-12 launches a year, there was not a big emphasis on the effects on the NAS.” Murray and Romanowski were discussing the application at the Air Traffic Control Association’s Technical Symposium in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on May 13.

Their solution, called the Space Data Integrator (SDI), automates the manual process by ingesting telemetry data from vehicle tracking systems and sending the information directly to a traffic flow management situational display where the current and projected positions, as well as the projected areas where airspace must be protected, are plotted and managed. “Right now, we compute what we think the hazard area will be, and we compute it so large that it will accommodate a number of different types of contingencies,” says Murray. “Then we put that in place, and we leave it in place for the duration of the launch or reentry. This automation will allow us to more dynamically tailor the airspace so that the only airspace that’s needed to be protected is the airspace that actually would be affected.”

The FAA tested SDI at the agency’s Atlantic City Technical Center facility in early May and was to begin receiving data from SpaceX from a previous reentry of its Dragon capsule to test the system. During the week of May 18, SpaceX was to begin streaming live data from a Dragon return mission from the International Space Station (ISS) as a “dress rehearsal,” in preparation for a full operational demonstration in July during the next Dragon return from the ISS. “That will entail our Joint Space Operations Group working the mission as we normally do now manually. At the same time, in the same room, on an isolated system, we’ll have our prototype running in parallel . . . to demonstrate the benefits,” Murray says.

Along with the new technology, Murray says the FAA also is developing processes and procedures for air traffic managers and controllers to use the information. “When we move away from the present approach of treating these as special operations and moving them into more routine operations—something an air traffic controller could see on a fairly regular basis—the procedures and policies would be in place and tools and training would be in place,” he says. 

This article was originally published on May 22.