Tracking aircraft contaminants

Researchers have developed a technique using mathematical models and sensors to pinpoint passengers releasing hazardous materials or pathogens inside airline cabins to a single seat.

The technique could enable officials to identify passengers responsible for the unintentional release of germs, such as contagious viruses, or the intentional release of pathogens or chemical agents in a terrorist attack.

The PurdueUniversity research is supported by the Air Transportation Centre of Excellence for Airline Cabin Environment Research, established by the US Federal Aviation Administration. The work aims to improve air quality and safety inside airline cabins.

The research focuses on developing mathematical models for software that will be needed to operate such a tracking system and learning how to precisely place several sensors to accurately trace hazardous airborne materials back to the source.

The technique, called ‘inverse simulation,’ analyses how a material disperses throughout the cabin and then runs the dispersion in reverse to find its origin. Sensors track the airflow pattern and collect data related to factors such as temperature, velocity and concentration of gases and particles in the air. This is difficult to do, due to the area involved, and currently requires days of computing time.

The researchers recreated a commercial airliner’s passenger compartment, complete with rows of seating, in the lab. They used data from experiments in the lab to validate results from the computational models. The lab is equipped with three sensors and recreates the exhalation and body heat of passengers and an airliner’s linear diffuser environmental control system, which supplies fresh and recirculated air for passengers. Devices located on several seats reproduce body heat, and each has a tube that expels a gas to simulate passengers exhaling.

Future work will concentrate on speeding the computation time, with a goal of one day creating a system that alerts pilots in real time and pinpoints a contaminant’s source.