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FAA includes Tech in aviation-safety 'dream team'

By Lynn Nystrom

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 37 - August 8, 1996

The head of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) calls it the "dream team" of aviation-a collection of expertise at four major U.S. universities to promote critical safety measures, as well to improve business and operational issues in the airline industry.

Faculty members at the four schools, Virginia Tech, the University of California at Berkeley, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Maryland, will comprise the new FAA Air Transportation Center of Excellence in Operations Research (OR). The center will work collectively on safety, business, and operational issues in the aviation industry.

"Selection of this team ushers in a new era of world-class partnerships between the FAA, academia, and industry," said FAA administrator David R. Hinson. "We have created a unique consortium of some of the best minds in the country."

According to the FAA, the center will "focus on the development and use of OR, a focused blend of applied mathematics, computer science, and engineering aimed at finding optimal solutions to complex problems." Specific work will address such issues as air traffic, management and control, human factors (the interface of humans and machinery), system performance and assessment measures, safety-data analysis, scheduling, navigation communications, and aviation economics.

The initial grant is for $1.5 million among the four universities. Matching money will come from companies such as Boeing, American Airlines, and Honeywell, as well as the transportation departments of the four represented states. Additionally, the FAA will also be able to award up to $10 million for specific deliverables due to the flexibility of a new acquisition system.

At Virginia Tech, Antonio Trani of the civil engineering department and Hanif Sherali of industrial and systems engineering (ISE) are the lead faculty members. For the past six years, Trani has been developing aviation-related computer models to improve the capacity of airports. His past research includes the creation of computer-simulation and optimization models to estimate the optimal location of runway exits, including a flight-simulation study to estimate pilot-aircraft responses on high-speed turnoffs.

Trani's colleague, Sherali, is an authority on solving transportation network flow problems, optimal resource allocation of airport gates, and how to best locate high-speed exits at busy runways. Other Virginia Tech faculty members involved in the center are Thomas Dingus and John Kobza, also of ISE, and Osman Balci of computer science.

At Berkeley, faculty members in the Institute of Transportation Studies and the Air Traffic System Laboratory will work with the new center. MIT offers two academic and research units, the MIT Operations Research Center, the Flight Transportation Laboratory, and the Aeronautical Systems Laboratory, as the focus of its participation. The University of Maryland team is drawn from three campus units: the Institute for Systems Research (a National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center), the Department of Civil Engineering, and the College of Business and Management.

The center plans to examine such questions as how the aviation industry can foster innovation in a mature, large-scale system that is subject to catastrophic failure; what is the appropriate distribution of intelligence in such a transportation system; and how can the performance of a large-scale transportation infrastructure system be optimized.

The center will learn in late August which of its proposed projects will assume precedence during its first three years of operation. However, Trani said the issue of "free flight," an advanced-technology concept, will be an "important component of the center." The system will be "mostly satellite-based and will require pilots and controllers to share responsibility in a more balanced fashion." With free flight, pilots will have certain freedom to select optimal routes independent of ground navigation aids. However, pilots will have to coordinate their decisions with controllers to avoid collisions.

Trani explained that free-flight trials over the Pacific Ocean have already provided up to a 5-percent savings in fuel consumption per flight. For a Boeing 747-400, 5 percent means a savings of up to 6,000 kilograms of fuel per flight. Based on the trials, United Airlines has estimated its savings at 40-60 million kilograms of fuel per year in trans-Pacific routes alone.

The four participating universities are located in states where aviation is critical to the local economies. Between them, there are four major international airports: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Logan, and Dulles. The former are the leading trans-Pacific gateways, and thus likely to be first served by the new generation of very large, and perhaps supersonic, aircraft, according to the center's proposal to the FAA. Also, the regions offer a host of complex air-traffic-control problems, featuring some of the most complex and congested terminal airspace in the United States Each one also has a large number of smaller, general-aviation facilities, and no potential for additional runways.

The industry partners in the center range from one of the world's largest airlines, American, to the largest airframe manufacturer, Boeing, to one of the leading avionics manufacturers, Honeywell.