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Airplane taking off from a runway

Once a day, on average, a landing airplane nearly collides with another plane or object on a runway, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Most of these potential accidents, known as incursions, are frightening close calls, but others have resulted in some of history's deadliest aviation accidents. For instance, in 1977, two Boeing 747s collided on Tenerife in the Canary Islands, killing 583 people.

Recently, a group of engineering psychology students from George Mason University won an FAA-sponsored design competition to increase airport runway safety and prevent incursions. Doctoral students Carl Smith and Peter Squire led the team, which also included psychology master's students Jane Barrow, Kevin Durkee and Jennifer Moore. In June, they presented their winning design at the American Association of Airport Executives annual meeting in Washington, D.C., and claimed a $2,500 prize.

"I was very happy that the students won even though their competitors were all in aeronautical and engineering schools," says psychology professor Raja Parasuraman, PhD, the team's faculty adviser.

The students found the runway incursion problem compelling because it was an opportunity to design a user-centered solution that could save lives. Although airports already use systems to warn pilots of potentialincursions, the existing technology is far from perfect, says Smith.

Most of the systems are expensive to install and maintain, prohibiting their use by regional airports. General aviation pilots, who are involved in four out of every five runway incursions, typically fly out of these smaller airports, he adds.

"Generally the smaller or more regional the airport, the less experience the pilots have, and those are the ones who tend to need the guidance and help to know they shouldn't pull down a particular runway," says Smith.

The George Mason team's winning design, called "Runway Incursion Monitoring and Direct Alerting System," uses a network of inexpensive wireless sensors that line the runway and provide real-time feedback on the planes' positions. If planes get too close to one another, buildings or vehicles, pilots hear a cockpit alarm.

"The current FAA warning system alerts the air-traffic controller, who then has to notify the pilots," says Parasuraman. "But...that may be too late. You often have just seconds to avoid an incursion, so that suggests you should alert the pilot."

The team members met with engineers, pilots and other aviation experts as they developed their design. They also conducted cognitive task analyses to determine what pilots must concentrate on as they land a plane. They discovered that visual tasks dominate pilots' attention, and this realization led the team to use an auditory alarm rather than a visual alarm, such as a flashing light.

The team proposed prototyping and further cost-benefit analysis of their design to the FAA, and they await its decision on whether their design may become the next generation of runway safety.

For more information on the FAA competition and winners, visit the Airport Design Competition page.

-E. Packard