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Technologies launch new era in airport safety


Human error, bad weather and ineffective ground radar can all have devastating consequences for airport safety, possibly leading to a huge number of fatalities. New complementary airport safety systems currently under development promise to avoid such incidences their potential impact in the future.

“Though technology has come a long way in recent years toward improving airport safety, it is evident that current systems using ground radar or cameras to detect aircraft and other vehicles suffer from deficiencies,” says Haibin Gao, a researcher at Saarland University in Germany.

New, more efficient and more accurate systems are therefore needed to prevent accidents and increase capacity. So what are these technologies and just how much will they improve safety? “They are all very innovative and they are likely to have a vast impact on the future of air traffic control at airports: they could even replace ground radar,” says Gao, who is developing arrays of magnetic sensors to detect the slight influence on the Earth’s magnetic field caused by the metal body structure of aircraft and ground vehicles, allowing it to pinpoint their exact location in the ISMAEL project.

The AIRNET project is using wireless technologies and the EGNOS satellite positioning system to communicate with transponders aboard aircraft and vehicles to identify, and locate them with an accuracy of up to 7.5 metres, providing air traffic controllers, airport operators and the managers of fleets of ground vehicles with a comprehensive overview of all movements within the airport zone.

The SAFE-AIRPORT project meanwhile is developing phased array microphone antennas to pick up the engine and the aerodynamic noise of aircraft up to six nautical miles in the air or on the ground, allowing them to be tracked and identified resulting in efficiency gains by improving the utilisation of available ground and air space while at the same time reducing the risk of accidents. The SAFE-AIRPORT system, the first to employ phased array microphones in civilian aviation, will alert controllers in case a plane deviates from its flight path up to six nautical miles away.

“The complementary nature of the three projects is obvious: AIRNET is focusing on tracking aircraft and ground vehicles equipped with transponders but it can’t detect vehicles that lack transponders. That is where ISMAEL comes in because it can locate non-cooperative vehicles, while SAFE-AIRPORT tracks approaching aircraft with high accuracy, which would also benefit ground management,” explains AIRNET coordinator Franck Presutto at M3 Systems in France. “We are possibly looking to combine all three systems into something that could ultimately replace ground radar.”

To date ground radar, or Surface Movement Radar (SMR), has been employed at large airports with heavy traffic to keep track of aircraft. However, it has several drawbacks. SMR cannot ‘see’ around buildings, a hazard in at airports with many aircraft parking bays. Moreover, limited number of radar antennas can be installed due to the health risks and interference of the electromagnetic radiation they produce. SMR is also expensive for small airports which are forced to rely on the vigilance of air traffic controllers or camera-based detection systems. Both, however, are prone to human error and distraction, and become ineffective in bad weather with low visibility.

ISMAEL’s magnetic sensor system will be tested at airports later this year. In addition, the commercial variant, which is due in 2007, is expected to cost far less than ground radar.

AIRNET will test in January 2006 in Porto airport. The tests will be six months long, and the system will be remain deployed on Porto airport until the end of 2006, thus enabling a complete validation of the system and services in real operational conditions.

This summer the SAFE-AIRPORT project will test its system at Rome airport for three months ahead of more extensive validation trials of 18 months. “We expect that by the end of 2007 the system will be used at all the airports run by Rome Airport Spa, including Fiumicino and Ciampino in the Italian capital and at 11 South African airports,” says SAFE-AIRPORT coordinator Alessandro Ferrando at D’Appolonia in Italy.

All three projects plan to maintain their collaboration over the coming years and all foresee that their systems will have a major impact on aviation safety and airport capacity.

Tara Morris | alfa
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