An invention by the University of Malta could lead to safer aircraft movements at airports if the technology developed by its Department of Electronic Systems Engineering takes off.

An instrument it designed, which resolves runway conflicts, has also secured the first international patent by the UK’s Intellectual Property Office for the University, putting Malta on the map where research in aeronautics is concerned.

The invention is the work of engineers David Zammit-Mangion, Andrew Sammut and Brian Zammit and is the result of about seven years of research and development with the aerospace industry.

“It has been a challenging task because it involved designing applications for situations where the lives of those on board are at stake,” said Dr Zammit-Mangion, the department head.

“Fatal runway collisions during landing and take-off may not happen that often. But incursions – entering the runway when the aircraft is not supposed to – occur on average once a day in the US alone and are considered a serious and dangerous problem, which could turn into an accident just with the flip of circumstance,” Dr Zammit-Mangion explained. The effective mitigation of runway collisions has, for many years, been high on the wish list of the aviation industry and the US National Transportation Safety Board has long been pushing to develop technologies to reduce the risk.

But it had to be the University of Malta to succeed, where attempts by Boeing and Nasa, among others, have failed. Other universities and institutions have gone for “non-optimal” solutions.

While traffic collision avoidance technology for aircraft in flight was available it did not yet exist for the airfield because it was more of a challenge, Dr Zammit-Mangion said.

“The crews need to focus more when they are landing and taking off and it is dangerous to alert pilots unnecessarily. So the technology is hard to develop...

“Our approach is that the only way to resolve the issue is to tell the pilots either to stop or continue. They need to be alerted about what to do because they are blind if they are taking off in zero visibility,” he explained.

“But we took on the challenge to decide that was the way it had to be done and developed the technology to support this method of alerting the crew in the cockpit.

“Flight trials have demonstrated it is significantly more effective to alert crews this way,” Dr Zammit-Mangion said.

The system monitors the traffic in the vicinity and when a risk of collision is detected it determines what to do to resolve it, defining the aircraft’s path to ensure it is averted and alerting the pilots to take appropriate action. The technology takes into account the dynamics of the conflict but also human reaction time and the possibility of making the wrong decision.

It may be a computer that is deciding on the action in such a touch-and-go situation but for Dr Zammit-Mangion it is much better than a human brain. “When you are scared, you take the wrong decisions. A computer always makes the same assessment, irrespective of whether the situation is stressful to the human being, or not.”

Dr Zammit-Mangion’s department has been working with several industrial partners to design airborne avionic equipment and has carried out other world-class research in aeronautics, winning a number of international contracts to the tune of €2.4 million.

It is also working on how to taxi a plane in complete blindness so that it can move on the runway autonomously and avoid delays due to fog.

The idea is to have the runway collision technology mandated on every plane, Dr Zammit-Mangion said.

“We would love to sell it but that is no mean feat due to the politics, liability and certification issues involved. Eventually, however, the technology will definitely find its way onto aircraft.”

The invention has already been disseminated widely through several forums and has been presented to RTCA, which designs standards in aviation and brings together the key players, including Airbus, Boeing and the certification bodies, among others.

“Massive interest” in the technology has already been shown, including from Boeing. Dr Zammit-Mangion will again meet representatives from Boeing in August.

If the University manages to exploit the patent, it stands to earn big money: the technology costs about $100,000 per plane, which is substantial, considering 20,000 aircraft are in operation and about 1,000 are built every year.

However, Dr Zammit Mangion is keeping his feet on the ground and statistics in mind: “It is only one in 10 patents that actually makes money!”

The importance of the patent lies not only in the protection of intellectual property but also in the fact that it tells the industry “we are capable of developing technologies that are worthy of attention”.

Factbox

The worst runway collision ever was in Tenerife in 1977 when a KLM Boeing 747 crashed into a Pan-Am jumbo jet as it attempted to take off in fog, with 586 fatalities.

The latest major runway incursion happened in Milan Linate International Airport in 2001.

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