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'Smart' System to Avoid Runway Disasters

April 11, 2007 — In one pilot’s account of a bad day on the airstrip at Linate Airport in Milan, Italy, Robert Baron recounted several conditions that could have led to a major accident: low visibility, a closed north ramp, a jog in the taxi to cross over to the takeoff runway, language
Thomas R. Anthony, program director for the USC Aviation Safety and Security Program, talks to the class.
problems between pilot and the flight tower, no surface ground radar.  Flying a Learjet 31A, he managed to improvise and take off safely.   

“Whether it was luck, skill, or a combination of both, we managed to break a link or two in the chain and departed uneventfully to our destination,” he recalled.  “Unfortunately, my biggest fear at Linate would be realized seven months later as Italy’s worst aviation disaster.”

Baron’s account is one of thousands of tales reported by pilots who encountered dangerous runway conditions. Needless to say, there’s plenty of room for improvements in the methods that air traffic controllers and pilots use to avoid runway incursions or problems during takeoff or landing.

Students in Viterbi School professor David Wilczynski’s “capstone” computer science course —CSCI 477 — have been addressing some of the shortcomings of current air traffic control software in a one-semester course for senior computer science and computer engineering majors.  The students spent one semester designing a new real-time computer system that may help pilots and controllers react in a timely fashion to runway problems some day. The work is part of a Federal Aviation Adminstration (FAA) student design competition in improving airports.
“Airports are complicated places,” said Wilczynski at a demonstration of the new prototype system to FAA officials.  “In this course, we’re trying to apply knowledge representation to runway incursion, because there’s
L-R: David Wilczynski, Frank Sweeney, Bob Jones, Sherry Avery and Thomas Anthony attended the student demonstration.
obviously interest in increased airport safety and designing airports to be safer. We want controllers to have the tools to make better decisions.

“The question for us is: Can we capture the aircraft industry safety lore and know-how in a knowledge base and, with it, write software to assist controllers in incursion detection and recovery, and also aid in designing safer airports?” Wilczynski said.  “The answer is yes, we can.  In fact, we think our incursion management system could represent the next wave in safety applications.”

The demonstration was formal, intended to show students how to conduct a formal industry briefing.  They dressed in business attire and presented PowerPoint talks to the FAA industry officials as well as demonstrations of their software prototype.  FAA officials included Sherry Avery, Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) control tower manager, and Bob Jones and Frank Sweeney, both LAX control tower assistant managers.  Thomas R. Anthony, program director for the USC Aviation Safety and Security Program, and Najmedin Meshkati, a USC Viterbi School professor of civil and environmental engineering, were also present.

Sherry Avery, LAX control tower manager.

Wilczynski’s students designed a sophisticated artificial intelligence rule-based system that was capable of alerting both pilots and air traffic controllers to risks on the runway.  The runway incursion management system consisted of two parts: an airport planning tool and a real-time incursion detection system.

Jose Medrano’s team created the airport planner. Its Web-based interface takes data from airport planners to create a new airport and then uses the knowledge base to assess its safety.

“Our approach uses artificial intelligence, which makes it different from other systems and allows us to take descriptions of airports and runways and create animations of the layout,” said Medrano. “The system is able to do this all by itself, and that makes it cutting edge technology.”

“Using the system, planners would be able to add as many features as desired, such as runways, taxi ways, hangars, towers, anything that is associated with an airport,” he said.  “When they were finished, they would be able to generate a report and find out what problems were inherent in the design.”  
USC instructor David Wilczynski, left, chats with Jose Medrano, who led the team creating a Web-based airport planner software program.

“The planning system shares the same knowledge-base with the real-time incursion system, which can analyze incursion scenarios based on incoming sensor data from an airplane, from the pilot and from current airport conditions,” explained team member Jason Cooper. “By clicking on each risk that shows up, the system can give the user suggestions for mitigating the problem, based on that shared knowledge base.” 

The real-time team described the architecture running the system, which  featured Java code, combined with a powerful graphical interface,  in addition to the backend PowerLoom knowledge base system. PowerLoom was written and is maintained by USC’s Information Sciences Institute.

“PowerLoom has a natural logic and deduction engine, which are fancy words for saying that it uses AI and a set of rules created by us to give an end-user whatever information he or she wants about the airport,” said Arthur Gevorkian. 

The students presented three incursion scenarios they had created for the demonstration: the first involved two airplanes heading for each other; the second added fog to the scenario; and the third illustrated what the system would do when additional mitigation technology was added.

“In the third scenario, additional mitigations pop up from the existing risks that could alleviate the problem,” explained Jeremy Hercher.        

Although the system is only a prototype, the students felt confident that it could be developed into a powerful new real-time runway incursion management system in the future.

Jason Cooper, center, talks with Thomas Anthony, program director for the USC Aviation Safety and Security Program. Jose Medrano is at right. 

“The goal of the class was really to work as a team to develop a product and make you aware of what happens in the real world before you go out into that industry,” explained Brian Wilke.    
“We were encouraged to know that the prototype could be much bigger than what we imagined it would be,” added James Watson. “We hope the feedback we get from the FAA will help us improve the system, because we think there are some real applications down the road.”

Sweeny, an LAX air traffic controller, was impressed with the system, remarking that the real advantage was in the system’s ability to alert air traffic controllers and pilots simultaneously to risks. “This alert system would give us time to correct the problem before an accident occurred,” he said.  

Cooper agreed.  “What we’re building here could have serious applications in the future in our country and elsewhere in world,” he said. “This could become a system that was able to reduce the number of disasters and deaths, and that’s a good feeling.”