MIT Wins Discover Magazine Award for Technology that Allows Better Tracking of Aircraft in the Air and on the Ground

Could help prevent runway, mid-air collisions


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Elizabeth Thomson
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CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--MIT engineers have won a 1996 Discover Magazine Award for Technological Innovation for a technology that will allow better tracking of aircraft and move such surveillance into the satellite age. The relatively inexpensive technology will also improve surveillance of trucks and other vehicles on the runway.

The award, in the aviation and aerospace category of the competition, was announced Saturday, June 1, at a ceremony at Walt Disney World in Florida. Paul R. Drouilhet, assistant director of MIT Lincoln Laboratory, accepted the award. Dr. Drouilhet is principal inventor of the new technology, but he stressed that "this was very much a team activity. A large set of people contributed to the success of this technology."

The new technology takes advantage of the Global Positioning System (GPS), a network of satellites that can accurately determine the position of a given object to within 10 meters. Dubbed GPS-Squitter, the technology determines a plane's position via GPS then squitters, or broadcasts, that position--plus the plane's identification--to all listeners.

Those listeners include not only air-traffic controllers, but other planes. As a result, it allows aircraft to see each other, a feat that is not practical for all aircraft today because the radar equipment to do so is very expensive. "Now for only a few thousand dollars, you can have a receiver on any plane to pick up squittered information from other planes," said Dr. Steven R. Bussolari, leader of the Lincoln Laboratory group that developed GPS-Squitter.

In addition to being an added safety measure, the ability for planes to see each other could pay off in other ways. For example, currently there is no aircraft surveillance over many ocean flyways because there is no place to put the radar ground station that sends and receives the pulses of energy that determine a plane's position.

"Air traffic controllers keep planes separated over the ocean by sending them off about 100 miles apart," Dr. Bussolari said. "This extra separation ensures they won't get close enough to hit, since the controllers can't track their progress on radar." If planes could see each other, "you could safely pack them in much tighter to really take advantage of the airway."

GPS-Squitter, which also won a 1995 R&D 100 Award, has other advantages over radar. For example, the ground stations that receive the squittered information (not to be confused with the smaller receivers on each plane) are much less expensive than radar ground stations (~$100,000 versus $4-5 million).

Dr. Bussolari noted that GPS-Squitter will also improve surveillance of planes and other vehicles that are on the runway. He explained that a big plane can sometimes shadow a smaller plane, blocking the radar signals that would ordinarily have alerted controllers to the presence of the smaller plane. GPS-Squitter solves this problem because each aircraft sends out its own signals, and GPS-Squitter ground stations are so inexpensive that several could be located around the airport so signals can't be blocked.

Two major demonstrations of GPS-Squitter were conducted in 1994. One tested surface surveillance of aircraft at Logan International Airport; the other tested air surveillance of helicopters servicing oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. Both demonstrations were successful, producing performance results that matched theoretical predictions.

In April 1996, GPS-Squitter was demonstrated for the FAA Administrator, David Hinson, at the Experimental Aircraft Association's Sun-n-Fun convention in Lakeland, Florida. Mr. Hinson flew in a light aircraft equipped with a low-cost traffic display that used GPS-Squitter surveillance to show the pilot the locations of nearby aircraft. Additional test flights of the same system were conducted later that month in the Los Angeles area, to demonstrate its performance in some of the nation's busiest airspace.

The MIT group is currently working with several industrial companies to make the technology cost effective for both general aviation and commercial aircraft. The work is supported by the Federal Aviation Administration. The Discover Awards, which acknowledge "the creativity of the men, women, and corporations/institutions who have reached superior levels of ingenuity, "are given in seven categories: automotive and transportation, aviation and aerospace, computer hardware and electronics, computer software, environment, sight, and sound. Five finalists are named per category; out of the five, one is chosen as overall winner for that category. An eighth category, "Editor's Choice," has only one finalist (and winner). This category is for "any new innovation or technology that, by virtue of its `newness,' does not fit into any of the other categories."

MIT's GPS-Squitter technology was named the overall winner for the aviation and aerospace category.

Each of the winners and finalists will be featured in a special July issue of Discover magazine. They also received all-expenses-paid trips to Disney World for themselves and a guest. Discover Magazine is the United States' leading general-interest science magazine, with some 6.7 million readers.


Topics: Aeronautical and astronautical engineering, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (I&E), Awards, honors and fellowships

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