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Student Capstone Project Improves Airport Safety

LAX and Burbank Visits Provide a Reality Check for Software Design

May 28, 2009 —

The team at the Burbank Airport: From left to right, Sharaf Nasser, Meera Srinivasan, Askhat Issakov, Nicholas Haskell and group mentor Tom Anthony.
For Professor David Wilczynski’s CSCI 477 class, the senior capstone design course for computer science, one group of students wanted to select a team project that provided them with real-world experience in researching a relatively new domain with a high potential for benefiting society.

They found what they were looking for right at the Viterbi School, at the USC Aviation Safety and Security Program, one of the nation’s top providers of aviation safety courses for professionals in government and industry.

The course’s objectives call for the students “to do a design project so that the student has practical experience in the requirements, design, and prototyping phases of the software life cycle through a significant group project. The project requires meeting with real clients, while designing toward real software." An industry expert leads each student team. Tom Anthony, the Director of the USC Aviation Safety and Security Program, mentored the aviation safety team.

Anthony said, “The students tackled a project that is of the highest visibility in aviation safety. The use of Safety Management Systems (SMS) is still evolving at the FAA and within the international aviation community. The project was relevant and urgent, with a potential to prevent accidents and incidents and ultimately save lives.”

Before developing their software, the team, accompanied by Anthony, made several visits to both the LAX Air Traffic Control Tower and Burbank Airport to elicit design requirements and to experience first hand the complex operational environment at a major airport. It is this complexity that can contribute to accidents and incidents. The SMS system that the students developed manages this complexity to increase safety.

Meera Srinivasan, the student team leader, found the survey done at the Burbank Airport most useful because it provided them with a good sense of the size of the majority of airports their system would deal with. “The Burbank tour gave us an actual representation of a typical client that our system would have to satisfy, especially in reference to average traffic, facilities, and resources," she said.

From Wilczynski’s perspective, “The trip to Burbank was critical in validating the ideas the team had already come up with after several visits to LAX. Talking to an array of potential clients is the essence of discovering whether a design is relevant.”

The team at the site of the EMAS installed at the end of the Burbank runway.
The Burbank visit also gave the students an opportunity to closely examine an Engineered Material Arresting System (EMAS), specially designed concrete blocks installed at the end of a runway that crush upon impact with an aircraft's landing gear and do not damage the aircraft. It was installed after a Southwest jet had a runway excursion and stopped in a gas station outside the airport. The group’s software was designed to identify such a hazard before it resulted in an accident and implement mitigating measures like the EMAS.

When CSCI 477 was completed, Srinivasan said, “Aviation Safety was a great capstone project because it gave us the experience of researching a relatively new domain, coming up with appropriate requirements, designing a software solution, and prototyping it. The process of gathering requirements and designing through extensive research gave us true insight into how software is developed out in the real world.”

In Anthony’s view, “it was an extremely gratifying experience to work with such capable, flexible and positive students, and a joy to see their final product.”

Other members of the group included Katie Altimus, Suela Buzi and Roxanna Aliabadi. All photos taken were under the escort and supervision of the Burbank Airport Safety Officer, Tom Janowicz.