Professor Natasha Neogi with some of the remote-controlled aircraft used to simulate air traffic.
Recently, the Department of Transportation released findings that won't shock many frequent fliers: The airline industry is suffering from its worst on-time performance since comparable data was first collected in 1995.
And with air traffic expected to triple in the next 20 years, it's only going to get worse.
Several researchers in the University of Illinois' Coordinated Science Laboratory (CSL) are actively involved in the Center for Distributed Air Transportation Management, an ambitious new effort to tackle this growing problem.
Natasha Neogi, a resident assistant professor at CSL, recently unveiled at the 2007 AIAA Guidance, Navigation and Control Conference novel techniques that will not only make air travel more efficient, but also safer. The new system calls for changes in flight patterns, restructuring airport usage and designing new sensors for aircraft, among other endeavors.
"We're looking at the problem from end to end," says Neogi, an assistant professor of aerospace engineering. "It's a complete rethinking of the way we fly."
For example, some of the congestion arises from antiquated air traffic control equipment and procedures that are essentially the same as when they were developed in the 1960s. Planes still follow narrow, fixed routes between cities, filed in advance to make it easier for controllers to monitor aircraft from hundreds of miles away.
The next-generation air transportation system would give pilots more control over their airspace. So pilots can respond to current traffic conditions and take more direct routes to their destinations, reducing weather delays and increasing efficiency.
The new systems would allow the industry to increase traffic to meet demand without causing delays on the ground. But it also means that airplanes will need more sophisticated sensor systems that would allow pilots to detect and respond quickly to conditions in their airspace. The research team is testing new algorithms for such high-tech computing systems.
Neogi and her colleagues are also working to develop new airport usage models, which may include diverting flights to airports that aren't as busy.
The team is testing the new procedures on scaled-down, remote-controlled aircraft at an airfield near the University of Illinois. Researchers, who simulate other air traffic, run the planes through various flight patterns to determine how they respond when onboard systems fail. Once perfected, the systems will be tested on full-sized aircraft.
The University of Illinois is the lead institution for the center, which also includes researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cambridge University. Other collaborators include the Federal Aviation Administration, NASA and industry partners such as Boeing and Lockheed-Martin.