plane on runway

Prototypes Point the Way Forward for Surface Safety

By Marlis McCollum

The FAA is seeking innovative ways to enhance safety on the airport surface, where getting off course can be just as dangerous as it is in the air. Two MITRE prototypes offer ways to detect and correct these errors early—before the danger escalates.

When a spate of near-misses occurred on airport runways earlier this year, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) asked the aviation industry to propose innovative, low-cost technologies to improve surface safety.

MITRE, operator of the FAA’s federally funded R&D center (FFRDC),has developed two prototype capabilities that could provide the solutions the agency seeks.

“The FAA’s primary focus is to prevent aircraft from entering a runway without permission,” says John Helleberg, who oversees MITRE’s work in the surface safety arena. When that happens, it can be catastrophic, since other planes might be landing or taking off.

“These aircraft travel at high speeds—often upwards of 100 miles per hour. If another plane suddenly enters their path, they have little ability to avoid it.”

Both pilots and air traffic controllers play a role in preventing these dangerous events—known in the aviation industry as “runway incursions.” MITRE’s prototypes address both sides of that safety equation.

“Most runway incursions are caused by lost, distracted, or confused pilots,” Helleberg says. “So, a primary goal of our research was to find ways to better monitor aircraft movements and issue alerts to both controllers and pilots if the aircraft deviates from the assigned route. If we can catch those errors early, we can reduce the number of runway incursions.”

For Pilots: Turn-by-Turn Guidance and Error Alerts

For pilots, our researchers took inspiration from automotive guidance systems.

“We have navigation systems in our cars to keep us on track, so it’s reasonable to expect pilots would have something like that when they’re moving across the airport surface. But they don’t,” Helleberg says. Instead, pilots rely on paper and electronic maps and airport signs to navigate the route the controller assigns.

“To give pilots added navigational support, we created a prototype application that provides them with turn-by-turn guidance and issues alerts if they get off course.” The pilot would then stop and radio the controller for instructions on how to proceed.

That technology—which works on an iPad—is part of a set of cognitive assistance tools for pilots MITRE makes available to pilot application developers via license. “As an organization working in the public interest, we want to get the technology into as many users’ hands as possible, and this is the way to do it,” Helleberg says.

Argus can monitor for conformance with the assigned taxi route and alert the controller if the pilot deviates from it.

John Helleberg, Group Leader, Transportation Human-Centered Experimentation

For Air Traffic Controllers: Argus Provides Enhanced Surface Awareness

MITRE developed a second prototype capability—Argus—for air traffic controllers monitoring the airport surface. Argus is named after a 100-eyed giant from Greek mythology who could see in all directions.

“Currently, only about 8% of the nation’s 520 towered airports are equipped with surface radar systems to help them monitor ground traffic,” Helleberg says. “The reason is that these systems—Airport Surface Detection System, Model X [ASDE-X] and the Airport Surface Surveillance Capability [ASSC]—are cost-prohibitive for all but the nation’s largest airports.” For instance, it cost approximately $550 million to install the ASDE-X system at 35 airports.

Controllers at airports without ASDE-X or ASSC rely primarily on their out-the-window view to track aircraft and other vehicle traffic on the ground.

“We wanted to give ground controllers at all airports greater surface awareness, so we needed to find a low-cost way to do it,” Helleberg says. They did.

“Our prototype works using only an iPad and a low-cost, commercially available receiver called Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast, or ADS-B. That device picks up the position information aircraft broadcast using similar equipment.”

The iPad displays a prebuilt map of the airport surface. As aircraft positions come in over the ADS-B receiver, Argus shows them on the controller’s iPad screen.

Prototype developers believe the added “overhead” electronic view Argus provides would improve controllers’ situation awareness by giving them more precise location information about aircraft on the surface.

“While controllers have a view out the tower window, it can sometimes be challenging to tell exactly where an aircraft is on the surface,” Helleberg says. “For instance, if two runways are parallel, it might be hard to discern which runway the plane is on. Argus makes that instantly clear.”

Argus can also support controllers by helping them digitally generate taxi routes in a variety of ways.

“For example, the controller can use the digital map to select the aircraft’s current position and its desired destination,” Helleberg explains. “Using captured data about typical taxi routes at the airport, Argus would offer several route options for the controller to select from.”

The controller could also build a route from scratch or simply swipe a finger across the screen to draw one. Another option, which will require more testing, is to use speech recognition to capture the controller-designed route.

The controller can send the taxi instructions to the pilot via Argus, or over the radio if the aircraft isn’t equipped to receive digital instructions.

“Argus will then monitor the aircraft’s movements for conformance with the selected route and can alert the controller if the pilot deviates from it,” Helleberg says.

Benefits Expand with Dual Capabilities

While we developed each prototype to provide benefits on its own, even greater benefits are anticipated if they’re used simultaneously.

In this scenario, the controller can generate a digital route in Argus and transmit it directly to the pilot’s application, where it will be drawn on the pilot’s screen. The application can then provide turn-by-turn guidance to the pilot. Once the aircraft begins to move, the two systems would monitor the pilot’s conformance to the route, each issuing alerts if there’s a deviation.

“Instant alerting on both sides of the process—in many cases before an aircraft enters an active runway—can greatly enhance safety,” Helleberg says.

“We’ve also used speech recognition technology to help ensure pilots and controllers are on the same page about the route before the aircraft begins to move. That can help prevent the errors that might slip through today’s radio-based ‘readback’ process, which is used even at airports with surface radar.”

Argus Could Be Readily Tailored to Any U.S. Airport

The Argus prototype has already undergone testing in simulated and real-world environments, with positive results.

“With the necessary approvals, Argus could be implemented today at any airport in the country to monitor airborne and surface traffic,” Helleberg says. “We could add a basic surface map to any airport in about an hour.” Creating customized algorithms to enable taxi conformance monitoring would take an additional week, on average, depending on airport complexity.

“We stand ready to expand testing and support implementation whenever it’s desired,” he says.” “We’re eager to see our solution start to deliver benefits in the field.”

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