Putting Math to Work for the Public Good

December 2014
Marco Enriquez

When Marco Enriquez completed his doctorate in applied mathematics from Rice University in 2010, he initially planned to seek a position in the gas and oil industry, where he had done research as an intern. But he had a change of heart. "I decided I wanted to steer my career toward public-interest work," he recalls. At the same time, Enriquez wanted a job that would allow him to perform cutting-edge research. "When I started looking for opportunities that matched that profile, MITRE really seemed to fit the bill."

The feeling was mutual. Enriquez came to MITRE in 2011 as a senior applied mathematician in the Center for Advanced Aviation System Development (CAASD), the federally funded research and development center MITRE operates for the Federal Aviation Administration. Since joining MITRE, Enriquez has applied his expertise in advanced mathematical algorithms and data analysis to a variety of initiatives. For example, in one effort, he improved the accuracy of existing aircraft fuel-consumption models. In another, he found a way to automatically categorize air traffic controllers' voice communication data to facilitate and enhance aviation system analysis.

Big Data Meets Its Match

A lot of Enriquez's efforts focus on extracting meaningful information from the vast amounts of data that aviation navigation, communication, and surveillance systems generate.

"In this 'Big Data' era we live in, the problem typically isn't that we don't have enough data, it's that we have too much of it," he explains. "It comes in all forms, too—continuous, discrete, textual, and numerical. You really need some mathematical sophistication to effectively uncover trends from these massive and varied datasets."

That's where Enriquez's skills become invaluable. He often automates the analysis of data that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to analyze due to its volume, form, diversity, or a combination of those factors.

Teaching Machines New Tricks

One of Enriquez's favorite projects is "Threaded Flow," an effort to identify trends and outliers in aircraft flight paths. "When aircraft traverse the national airspace, they form patterns that would be readily apparent to the human eye," he says. "But we can't rely on people to manually identify these trends and patterns in the airspace. There's too much data for that to be efficient or cost-effective. Instead, we needed to find a way to teach a machine to perform that task."

Enriquez created an algorithm that does just that. It not only tracks and analyzes existing traffic patterns, it also helps researchers measure the effects of operational changes implemented in the National Airspace System (NAS) and estimates the potential effects of proposed changes.

"The nation has invested heavily in improving the NAS infrastructure, and we want to ensure that those improvements deliver the promised benefits," he says. "This is one way we can help the FAA track those improvements and project future benefits."

Making a Broad Contribution

One of the things Enriquez enjoys most about his job is that he gets the chance to learn about, and contribute to, many different initiatives. For instance, he is currently collaborating with colleagues in the aviation safety department to help characterize anomalous (and potentially unsafe) aircraft landings across the NAS.

Enriquez appreciates the meaningful nature of these research efforts and the caliber of his colleagues' expertise. "Here at MITRE," he says, "you can feel good about your work and at the same time be sure you'll be among people who are pushing the research envelope. For me, that's a perfect combination."

—by Marlis McCollum