• Airport diagram of Boston's Logan International Airport with Runway Intersection Lights, Takeoff Hold Lights, and Runway Entrance Lights (in red).

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  • Runway Status Lights operational concept depicting a notional deployment of Runway Intersection Lights, Takeoff Hold Lights, and Runway Entrance Lights.

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Logan to get Lincoln Lab-developed runway safety system


Next year, Boston's Logan International Airport will become one of the first U.S. airports to deploy Runway Status Lights (RWSL), a new technology originally developed at MIT Lincoln Laboratory as part of the Federal Aviation Administration's continuing program to improve runway safety.

RWSL--an automated, all-weather safety backup to pilots, airport vehicle operators, and air-traffic controllers--is designed to aid in the prevention of runway accidents while not interfering with the efficient tempo of operations required at high-capacity airports. The system was developed at Lincoln Laboratory under the FAA's Runway Incursion Reduction Program.

The RWSL system improves safety by enhancing the situational awareness of flight crews and vehicle operators through automatic and timely status lights that indicate when runways are occupied. The automatic control of the lights is performed by software-based control logic driven by a fusion of primary and secondary radar data that provides an accurate picture of runway usage by aircraft and ground vehicles. The RWSL concept comprises takeoff hold lights (THLs), runway entrance lights (RELs), final approach runway occupancy signals (FAROS) and runway intersection lights (RILs).

Operationally suitable versions of RWSL are being tested at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and the San Diego International Airport. Lincoln Laboratory is supporting successful extended operational evaluations of RELs and THLs at Dallas-Fort Worth and RELs at San Diego. The Laboratory is also scheduled to support an operational evaluation at Logan once RELs, THLs and RILs, which will have their first-in-the-nation deployment at Logan, have been installed in late 2009.

In the early 1990s, Lincoln Laboratory developed a preliminary operational concept of runway-status lights followed by a concept demonstration at Logan. In the mid-1990s, NASA Langley Research Center reported the results of a cockpit simulation study of pilot acceptance of runway-status lights while the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center studied the design and physical installation of runway-status lights at Logan International Airport.

All of these studies concluded that runway-status lights could be an effective means to prevent runway incursions and runway-conflict accidents and would be supported by pilots and controllers, provided that the performance of the surveillance and light control logic could be optimized to be compatible with high-density airport operations. However, it was concluded at the time that the existing surface surveillance quality was inadequate to support an RWSL system with a low enough false-activation rate to be compatible with operations at a complex, busy airport. In the past decade, FAA-sponsored programs have advanced surface surveillance technology to the level needed to make RWSL practical. In 2002, Lincoln Laboratory reinstated its RWSL development effort under FAA sponsorship.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 21, 2008 (download PDF).


Topics: Aeronautical and astronautical engineering, Electrical engineering and electronics, Cambridge, Boston and region

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