Providing Mid-Sized Airports with More Surface Awareness Increases Safety

July 2016
Topics: Aviation Safety, Aviation and Aeronautics, Airports, Air Traffic Management
MITRE created the Low-Cost Surface Awareness (LCSA) system to provide a solution for small and medium airports that will prevent runway collisions, improve passenger safety, and increase airport capacity. A test in New Jersey passed with flying colors.
 Emily Stelzer looking at large video screens.

Just 12 miles from midtown Manhattan, Teterboro Airport is a busy hub for private and corporate aircraft. A designated "reliever" airport, it focuses on these smaller aircraft to reduce congestion at the three local giants (JFK, La Guardia, and Newark Liberty International) that make metropolitan New York the busiest airport system in the United States.

Teterboro is one of about 450 small-to-medium sized towered airports (those that average 500 operations or fewer per day) in the country that rely on visual observation and pilot reports to determine location, trajectory, and potential danger for myriad aircraft and vehicles on the tarmac. That is, air traffic controllers watch the runways to make sure planes, trucks, and other vehicles on the runways do not accidentally get in each other's way. This method is particularly challenging during bad weather when it is hard to see through the rain or snow.

MITRE created the Low-Cost Surface Awareness (LCSA) system to provide a solution for small and medium airports that will prevent runway collisions and improve passenger safety. It will also increase airport capacity through gains in efficiency. We successfully piloted LCSA at Teterboro in 2015.

The system provides real-time information on the location of not only aircraft but also ground vehicles, such as snowplows and maintenance trucks. To keep costs low, we combined commercial off the shelf components with novel MITRE algorithms. The goal was to make the system affordable for many of those 450 airports that can’t afford the sophisticated radar system used by the country’s 50 largest airports for ground surveillance. That system, called ASDE-X, costs about $25 million.

"Even for a smaller airport like Teterboro, it can be challenging to see the whole area at once, especially if it's cloudy or snowing," says Emily Stelzer, who led the development of LCSA, as well as the pilot project. "We felt there had to be a way to improve safety at these mid-sized airports without breaking their budgets."

"And we proved there is. We hope that by licensing LCSA to industry, the entire system could be installed for between $2 and $2.5 million."

Creating A User-Friendly Visual Map

MITRE's LCSA system uses commercial-off-the-shelf infrared cameras as sensors to record activity along the runways and taxiways. It then applies advanced image detection and geolocation algorithms to the sensor outputs to estimate the latitude and longitude of whatever is moving. This information is converted into a user-friendly visual map in the control tower.

MITRE conducted the LCSA pilot trial in conjunction with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns and operates the airport. The demo, which took place during August 2015, focused primarily on ground vehicles. The MITRE team installed infrared cameras on both the air traffic control tower catwalk and a hangar. The team then put a GPS transmitter in each vehicle and compared these locational results to the LCSA system outputs. Visual observations of some aircraft were also used for comparison purposes.

While the MITRE team had conducted initial sensor testing at Virginia's Warrenton-Fauquier airport, Manassas Regional Airport, and Dulles International Airport in 2014, this pilot trial was the first end-to-end testing of the LCSA system.

Helping Industry Turn LCSA into Affordable Products

"We didn’t really know how accurately the system would perform—it was possible that it wouldn't be reliable," says Stelzer. "A runway is 150 feet wide and today’s multi-million dollar systems can perform with less than 20-foot error span. Ours was 35 feet, which is an excellent result. We showed that the project is both technically feasible and that it has tangible benefits."

MITRE is also working with the Port Authority and the Federal Aviation Administration to help it achieve their goals of providing low-cost surface awareness to medium-sized airports. Stelzer estimates there are about 45 airports that might immediately benefit from the system due to chronic bad weather conditions, a previous record of safety incidents, or a complicated layout.

The LCSA prototype was made available for licensing in 2014 to help industry create affordable, sustainable products for the aviation community. MITRE is exploring licensing paths with surface surveillance technology companies.

Stelzer and her research team developed the system under MITRE's independent research program. The company conducts independent research to explore new technologies and concepts that can solve our sponsors’ most critical challenges.

"LCSA is a great example of MITRE tackling a sponsor problem in a way that benefits multiple stakeholders," said Glenn Roberts, chief engineer of MITRE’s Center for Advanced Aviation System Development. "In this case, there will be significant improvements in safety for the flying public. Tower controllers will have the tools they need to increase situational awareness, even during periods of bad visibility, and traffic flow managers, en route controllers, and terminal controllers will receive vital surface information that has not been available previously."

—by Twig Mowatt

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