Plane to see: practical design solutions for airports

Five teams of students have won recognition in the 15th annual University Design Competition for Addressing Airport Needs, a contest that encourages design innovative and practical solutions to challenges at airports. Alex Love looks at the winning solutions.

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A range of innovative solutions to improve airport operations have been revealed as part of an annual competition at universities in the US.  

The US Transportation Research Board’s Airport Cooperative Research Program University Design Competition for Addressing Airport Needs is closely followed by the aviation industry and viewed by many universities as an essential part of the curriculum. 

And some of these concepts from the competition winners could well be in use at airports sooner rather than later. Some entrants have been invited to apply for Next Step funding to turn the concepts into a reality, with up to $25,000 available. The level of innovative ideas and extensive research from students in devising the concepts left the organisers impressed.  

“The winners of the 2021 University Design Competition for Addressing Airport Needs are an impressive group of students that have responded to some of the pressing questions facing the US airport industry,” says Marci A Greenberger, manager of the Airport Cooperative Research Program. 

“The innovative solutions developed by the first-place teams in each of the four categories... impressed not only myself but the members of the selection committees. I’m confident the next class of airport practitioners are ready to manage the challenges of the 21st century.” 

The competition is now in its 15th year and Matt J Griffin, senior programme officer of the Airport Cooperative Research Program, is its new manager.   

“I’m excited to be taking over the management of the programme from my colleague Larry Goldstein, who is retiring. Larry has shepherded this competition to the full-featured programme it is today. The 2021 submissions feature a strong class of proposals. Each category featured innovative concepts for managing issues facing US airports,” says Griffin. 

“Students not only investigated the issues but they presented their ideas to airport practitioners providing an opportunity to work inside the industry.”

Airport operations and maintenance

In the Airport Operation and Maintenance category, first place went to a team of five students from San Jose State University’s Aviation and Technology Department. The entry, called Conceptual Design of Vertiport and UAM Corridor, was put together by students Brayan Mendez, Francis Sison, Guillermo Anaya, Heungseok Park, and Matt Marchetti. 

The concept was to address a lack of dedicated infrastructure for urban air mobility (UAM) vehicles. By 2030, passenger journeys using UAM aircraft are predicted to total 130 million a year.  

Yet infrastructure needs to improve to meet this demand. While UAM aircraft can use existing heliports through vertical take-off and landing, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires a specially designed vertiport and designated UAM corridors. 

To meet this need, the team designed a vertiport with a surface area of 340ft², featuring four separate areas for touchdown and liftoff (TLOF) on the roof of the building. The urban facility features lifts, parking spaces, and areas for maintenance, while its energy comes from carbon-free electricity. 

In second place came the sUAS Hazard Detection System, from students Mary Ollis and Mihir Mehendale at Michigan Technological University's Civil and Environmental Engineering department. The solution addresses the issue of wildlife, notably birds, being struck by aircraft. 

Despite coming second, organisers still invited the team to submit Next Steps Proposals to advance the development closer to operational use at airports.

By 2030, passenger journeys using UAM aircraft are predicted to total 130 million a year.

Organisers praised the entry for being innovative and well put together, demonstrating a clear understand of present FAA regulations concerning sUAS use. The idea is to use small drones to discourage wild animals from entering the runway area, while also maintaining the natural environment and habitats. The sUAS technology will detect and identify wildlife in the vicinity before any risk of a collision arises.  

According to FAA figures, there have been more than 227,000 incidents with wildlife at airports. Much of this is considered minor damage for the airports, but almost every animal is severely injured or dies. Yet as many as 271 aircraft were destroyed due to colliding with wildlife, with estimated costs of  $500m-$900m.  

Ollis and Mehendale cited further financial benefits, with an individual sUAS unit and related services costing $19,500. In comparison, airports spend an estimated $736,000 every year dealing with damages from collisions with wildlife. 


Environmental interactions

In the Airport Environmental Interactions category, the team from the College of Aeronautics at Florida Institute of Technology won first place for their entry, FlyKey. This is a digital solution designed to manage the risks of infectious diseases at airports. The global pandemic has heightened the need for this type of technology. 

The entry from students Arjun Nair, Anna Wojdecka, and Syed Abbas received praise from organisers for being innovative and cost-effective, with an accomplished prototype. FlyKey has been designed to be scalable and simple to bring into existing airport operations.

Using contactless technology, FlyKey is intended to improve the safety of passengers at airports. It uses smart technology to eliminate risks of infections from touchpoints around airports, from when passengers arrive to when they depart. Sensitive information is protected by secure ID certification.

Flykey uses smart technology to eliminate risks of infections from touchpoints around airports.

FlyKey combines separate apps for both passenger processing and interactions between airport personnel and passengers. A central analytics platform offers real-time data on the flow of people moving throughout the airport. Algorithms predict trends and activity, allowing for greater use of space within the airport. 

The solution also offers the personnel the ability to quickly adapt to changing situations, protecting passengers from areas where there is an infection risk. The team have been invited to submit Next Step proposals.

Runway safety

The winning entry in the Runway Safety/Runway Incursions/Runway Excursions came from students at Michigan Technological University’s Civil and Environmental Engineering department. 

Greg Porcaro, Matt Bacon, and Andrew Vega designed a solution to improve the situational awareness of pilots. Their entry was titled ‘Graphical NOTAM Interface For Improving Efficiency of Reporting NOTAM Information’. 

The concept was designed to improve safety issues associated with runway excursions when an aircraft exits the runway in an unsafe manner.  

Between 1998 and 2007, there were 141 runway excursion incidents involving Western-built commercial planes – according to figures from the Ascend World Aircraft Accident Summary – resulting in the deaths of 550 people. The cause of approximately 74% of excursions during landing were either weather or decisions by personnel.

The students created an Electronic Flight Bag user interface that presents the NOTAMs and weather data in graphics.

At present, pilots receive the majority of information on runway conditions and potential airspace hazards from the Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs). However, this is not without its flaws, as the written information is not always communicated effectively and can be confusing. 

To solve this problem, the students created an Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) user interface that presents the NOTAMs and weather data in graphics to give pilots greater awareness of potentially disruptive factors and conditions at airports. 

The team created the interface by working with pilots, airport operators and an expert in human factors. Information is in a clear format to reduce the chances of misinterpretation. The team has also been asked to submit proposals for the Next Steps.

Airport management and planning

In Airport Management and Planning, it proved too difficult to pick one winner. So two were selected as joint winners instead. 

One of the successful teams consisted of five students from the University of California, Berkeley’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department. 

Their entry had the title of ‘High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) Traffic Management Concept on Airfields: Increasing Airport Capacity and Reducing Passenger Delay’. Alejandro Sannia, Arupa Adhikary, Chee Weng Michael Leong, Cole Benner, and Karilin Yiu made up the team.  

Their idea was to reduce congestion at airports by giving aircraft carrying the highest number of passengers access to specially designated ‘HOV lanes’. Aircraft in these lanes would have take-off priority in peak times for departures over planes carrying fewer passengers. The team found that their proposal could reduce passenger delays by as much as 12%, with the potential to boost throughput by 13%.

As non-towered airports are much more prevalent throughout the world, AVIATS presents potential hazards that are avoidable.

The second winner in the category came from a three-person team from the University of Utah’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Students Mohammad Farhadmanesh, Vitoria Bini, and Cyrus Safai put forward an entry titled ‘Automatic Independent Video-based Air Traffic Surveillance system’ (AIVATS) to deal with the absence of supervised monitoring systems at airports without control towers. 

As non-towered airports are much more prevalent throughout the world, this presents potential hazards that are avoidable. The Utah students put forward an automatic air traffic monitoring system to monitor activities at airports without control towers. 

The system combines video from the airfield with computer processing software and air traffic data to improve spatial awareness for operators and reduce the possibility of runway incursions. 

Competition organisers commended the team for developing the AIVATS working prototype. The team behind AIVATS is the fourth competition entrant asked to submit proposals for the Next Steps.