Safety on the Surface: A Low-Cost System for Runway Awareness

September 2014
Topics: Aviation Industry
When visibility is poor, controllers need a technological way to monitor traffic on the airport surface. Smaller airports can’t afford the technology major airports use for this purpose, so MITRE set about creating a low-cost alternative.
Emily Stelzer

Runway incursions have caused some of the biggest accidents in aviation history. Additionally, hundreds of close calls occur every year at small to mid-size airports in the United States and around the world.

Weather is one of the biggest causes of these incidents. For example, in one instance that was caught on video, a plane entered the wrong runway, where another plane was about to land. In thick fog, neither the air traffic controller nor the pilots could see the runway or the planes, but the pilot on the ground could hear a plane overhead. The controller stopped all activity on the runway until he could determine what was happening—preventing an accident. A surface surveillance system could have prevented the situation from going so far.

Indeed, an excellent high-functioning radar system called ASDE-X has greatly reduced the number of runway incursions and near misses at airports that have installed it. However, the system costs $10 to $25 million per airport, which lower-capacity airports can't afford. Out of the 500 towered airports in the U.S., only 50 have that advanced capability.

To fill the gap, MITRE researchers are working on an affordable system that could provide surveillance of the airport, showing controllers where aircraft are located—even when it’s too foggy to see.

Monitoring the "Block" for Activity

"Our idea is inspired by something that's currently done in the railway system, called block occupancy," explained Emily Stelzer, project leader. "We want to install sensors at periodic points on the airport's surface, which we will divide into sections or 'blocks.' When an aircraft or ground vehicle passes by those sensors, the system detects that the block is occupied and notifies the controller. A display in the control tower shows each vehicle moving from one block to another so that the controller knows where everyone is on the surface."

Stelzer and her research team first tried out their concept in one of MITRE's advanced simulation laboratories and then began developing a prototype system using real sensors. "Luckily, we have numerous sensor experts at MITRE," Stelzer says. "We pooled their knowledge to identify and test the best candidate technologies—those with enough sensitivity to detect a wide range of aircraft and other vehicles with little sensor processing."

The team has also developed new algorithms, as well as displays for the controllers. The group has done initial sensor testing at Warrenton-Fauquier Airport, Manassas Regional Airport, and Dulles International Airport, all in Virginia. The team is preparing to test the end-to-end system at an airport in fiscal year 2015.

"We have been sharing our early discoveries with the Federal Aviation Administration and other aviation stakeholders, both domestic and international," adds Stelzer. "We're also conducting a robust cost-benefit analysis of the system to make sure we're meeting the market's needs, including usability and affordability."

Because the FAA and airports are finding this solution beneficial, MITRE has made the Low-Cost Surface Awareness System prototype available for licensing so that industry can create affordable, sustainable products for the aviation community.

Commercializing Successful Technology Through Licenses

"Since MITRE doesn't manufacture systems, we're always interested in making our technology available through commercialization," says Glenn Roberts, chief engineer for MITRE's Center for Advanced Aviation System Development, the federally funded research and development center MITRE operates for the FAA. "For example, this is what we did with the Universal Access Transceiver (UAT) Beacon Radio technology.

"With the UAT Beacon Radio, we helped enable industry's development of a small, effective, low-cost Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) system that provides pilots with situational awareness of surrounding aircraft. This was of particular interest to general aviation pilots who often couldn't afford the larger and more expensive systems that were on the market," he adds.

"By licensing our technology to industry, we helped open up a new market for vehicles such as small planes and unmanned aircraft. We hope to achieve something similar for airport situational awareness with our low-cost surface awareness technology."

—by Beverly Wood

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