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01 September 2014

University Research improves runway safety

 - Sunday, 22 April 2012, 00:00

A seven-year study at the University of Malta, partly funded by the EC 6th Framework Programme with a budget of €600,000, concludes that the risk associated with runway incursions can be mitigated through effective cockpit alerting and guidance to pilots.

Researchers Professor David Zammit Mangion, Dr Ing Andrew Sammut and Ing Brian Zammit from the Department of Electronic Systems Engineering, Faculty of Engineering, have been developing a safety system that alerts pilots in the event of the incorrect presence of third party aircraft on the assigned runway.

The work focuses on the cockpit environment and presents an effective alerting method that uniquely tells the pilots what action to take to avoid a collision when a runway traffic conflict arises. This approach ensures a fast, reliable and repeatable response by the pilots and so will significantly increase the chances of the successful mitigation of a collision. Specifically, the system tells the pilot to stop or allows him to continue the manoeuvre, depending on which manoeuvre is the safer option.

All ground movements are controlled via air traffic control (ATC) instructions and clearances. However, there are instances when ATC issues conflicting runway clearances and others when the crew inadvertently enters the runway without clearance to do so. According to statistical studies from the United States, there are an average of two runway incursions a day with a significant risk of injury and death to passengers and crews. Both the USA and Europe are constantly improving their surveillance systems to alert pilots before entering a runway or during takeoff, but human error and low visibility remain constant problems.

Dr Sammut emphasised that their research study has an innovative concept by global standards. “In the late 1990s, NASA developed similar projects, but there has always remained a percentage of error as regards timely warnings to eliminate runway collisions.”

Mr Zammit explained: “The system that we have developed works only when there is the potential risk of a collision between two aircraft on the runway. The alerting technique, which uses both audio and visual alerting methods, had to be sufficiently assertive and also timely to ensure the pilots take quick and correct action to avoid a collision.”

The Maltese concept was first tested at the University of Malta on a mock-up simulator to ensure it operated in accordance with the initial specification. It was then installed on an aircraft simulator at Darmstadt University in Germany, where it underwent testing by various engineers and field experts under various flight scenarios. The system was then subjected to a further level of testing on flight simulators at Cranfield University, UK, using line pilots from Air Malta and easy Jet.

“We also received very positive feedback from the pilots themselves, who said that this technology is a great relief in this particular safety sector,” said Dr Sammut. The Dutch aerospace research laboratory NLR carried out more human factor tests where pilots where exposed to various novel safety systems for traffic, weather and terrain hazard avoidance.

This industry-oriented concept innovation has placed this team of researchers from the University of Malta second in the Scientific Innovation category of the Malta Innovation Awards, and also won the university its first foreign patent from the UK in 2010. The award of a US patent is currently pending.

“We are promoting the research abroad. NASA, Boeing, MITRE Corporation and Honeywell Aerospace have all shown an interest in Malta’s test cases. Our research is on the list of the top 10 most-wanted improvements for enhancing aviation safety by the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB),” said Dr Sammut.

“We take great pride in knowing that our system will save lives,” concluded Ing Zammit.

Professor Zammit Mangion, Dr Sammut and Ing Zammit have been working continuously with industry and research establishments in the aerospace industry for nine years. Together with a number of academics and researchers from the same department, they are currently involved in four international research projects in the sector. This has resulted in direct collaboration with major players in the European Research Area such as Airbus, Alenia Aermacchi, Agusta-Westland, EADS, Thales Avionics, BAE Systems, Rockwell-Collins, Latecoere, French, Dutch and German national aerospace research laboratories (ONERA, NLR and DLR respectively) and prestigious universities such as Cranfield University, Delft University of Technology and Darmstadt University.

The University’s ability to carry out research projects is fundamentally important. For this purpose, the Research and Innovation Development Trust (RIDT) has been established to attract funds and strengthen investment in high-calibre research and development across every faculty.

“Research studies carried out at the University of Malta have been recognised as having inherent benefits to society, not only in Malta but internationally. The application of this particular research aimed at improving runway safety in commercial aviation is a case in point. Furthermore, such research excellence raises the profile and reputation of our university and its faculty members nationally and internationally,” said the CEO of the university’s Research Innovation and Development Trust (RIDT), Wilfred Kenely. More information about RIDT is available by logging on to www.ridt.org.mt

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