Runway safety may ensure smooth flight

Advanced cockpit display systems developed at the NASA Langley Research Centre may help to reduce aviation accidents before an aircraft has left the runway.

Runway incursions between aircraft and ground vehicles or other planes have increased by approximately 60 percent over the last five years.

In its attempt to reduce aircraft fatalities by 80 percent over the next decades, incursion avoidance has been named as the primary safety priority by the US Federal Aviation Administration.

NASA’s Runway Incursion Prevention System (RIPS) has been developed to give pilots and air traffic controllers an early warning if other planes or even ground vehicles are about to intrude onto the runway.

The RIPS system is said to integrate several advanced technologies into a surface communication, navigation and surveillance system for flight crews and air traffic controllers by combining a dashboard mounted moving map of the airport’s runways and taxiways with a head-up screen that gives the pilot real-time guidance.

The system shows and sounds an alert if another plane or vehicle is about to encroach onto the runway.

Air and ground vehicles can be pinpointed is several ways.

Radar is the most likely method. Equipment installed on high points can be tuned to track surface traffic. As a precaution, aircraft and ground vehicles could be fitted with radio tags interfaced with GPS data or receivers embedded in the tarmac. For ground controllers and pilots with a restricted field of view, blind spots may be virtually eliminated.

RIPS is just one component of an advanced flight deck display system that would provide flight crews with vital airborne and ground data, including terrain, ground obstacles, air traffic, landing and approach patterns and detailed airport surface maps.

Another of NASA’s potential safety tools is NASA’s Synthetic Vision System, which processes GPS signals, three-dimensional terrain databases and sensors to give pilots the information they need to proceed safely.

Synthetic Vision would offer flight crews a clear electronic picture of what’s outside, regardless of weather conditions. For example, infrared cameras may be used at night or in bad weather. In theory this may lead to windowless cockpits, with the pilots relying solely on their electronic eyes.

The RIPS technologies were demonstrated at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in 2000. A NASA 757 aircraft was equipped with the experimental displays and computer systems and NASA and commercial pilots took the 757 for a number of overnight flight tests to evaluate the gear.

Harry Verstynen, chief pilot from Langley, said the RIPS display has multiple uses. ‘Even for the large percentage of the time that you are not having a runway incursion the displays will give the pilot significant improvements in situational awareness on the airport and taxiing in low visibility conditions.’

‘With a few minor adjustments, I think it’s something commercial industry and aviation industry should take and grab hold of,’ said John Penney of United Airlines.