Researchers in the United Kingdom are developing a new computerized approach to airport operations that aims to reduce delays, speed up baggage handling and...

Researchers in the United Kingdom are developing a new computerized approach to airport operations that aims to reduce delays, speed up baggage handling and decrease pollution.

The project is funded by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and is being led by researchers at The University of Nottingham.


Their research aims to computerize and coordinate four key areas of airport operations: scheduling of aircraft; taking-off and landing; gate assignment; and baggage handling. The end result will be a prototype search engine capable of analyzing the many billions of possible scheduling combinations so as to provide the best advice to ground controllers, who decide where in the airport to send planes.

Currently these four aspects of airport operations are, in most cases, organised manually by highly skilled staff making decisions based on observations, reports and their experience. Complicating matters, each activity is run in isolation from the others, which allows the potential for any difficulties in operations in one area to affect another. This can lead to delays snowballing.

In addition to enhancing the experience for passengers, the researchers expect the scheduling improvements they create to reduce pollution by minimising the time aircraft are on the ground with their engines running. This could save thousands of litres of aviation fuel every year, an important improvement given the predicted growth in air travel.

Researchers from four universities are involved in the project. Also, Manchester and Zurich Airports are assisting the research, providing crucial advice and expertise from the user’s point of view.

An Airbus A320 flies its final approach. Researchers in the UK led by a team from the University of Nottingham are developing software models to computerize airport operations to improve airport scheduling efficiency, with the aim of reducing flight delays and decreasing pollution

An Airbus A320 flies its final approach. Researchers in the UK led by a team from the University of Nottingham are developing software models to computerize airport operations to improve airport scheduling efficiency, with the aim of reducing flight delays and decreasing pollution

The project will see development of computational models for each of the four areas of airport operations. Ultimately, each scheduling model will be run on regular PCs. Key to the research will be examining how to run them all together to streamline overall operations.

Professor Edmund Burke, the principal investigator on the project and dean of the Faculty of Science at The University of Nottingham, says the limitations of the current systems are widely acknowledged. “Many people in the industry recognise that automating just one of these aspects could improve the efficient running of airport operations, so integrating all four would be a huge step forward,” he says.

“We’ll be developing a computer system that will work its way through the many billions of permutations created daily in each of these operations, to provide a much higher level of computer-aided decision support than is currently available,” says Burke. This will provide the best possible advice to runway controllers and other airport staff to inform their decisions regarding where planes and baggage are moved to.

Among the crucial issues being tackled is the matter of how long an aircraft needs for preparation on the ground before takeoff. This has to include enough time for the passenger safety briefing, which is a legal requirement, and for the engines to warm up.

If the aircraft is sent to the runway without incorporating enough time for these activities, it will mean a delay at the runway before takeoff. This can lead to unnecessary congestion on the runway, aircraft unnecessarily using up fuel while waiting for takeoff, and, potentially, delays to other flights.

Burke adds that the involvement of the two airports will also provide invaluable assistance to the multi-disciplinary team of scientists and engineers. “Working closely with Manchester and Zurich airports will ensure access to real world expertise that should help us achieve the best possible result,” he says.

The academic team in the consortium consists of representatives from The University of Nottingham, University of Salford, Loughborough University and University of Liverpool.

The four-year research project ‘Integrating and Automating Airport Operations’ will begin on December 1 and is scheduled to end on November 30, 2013. It has received EPSRC funding of £681,924.

Research by the Georgia Institute of Technology in 2006 found that a 1 per cent increase in air transport leads to a 5 per cent increase in delays. With a 26 per cent rise in air transport expected by 2013 compared to 2006 (according to the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation), the researchers say this project could help airports change the way they operate.

The project is one of six to emerge from the Research Councils’ Energy Programme’s Sandpit on Airport Operations, held in November 2008. This was a multi-disciplinary, cross-institutional initiative to examine the challenges surrounding reduction of the environmental impact of airport operations, excluding the aircraft. Representatives of government, industry and academia participated, creating a unique forum for debating the issues and creation of research projects that were unlikely to come together without the event.

EPSRC is the main UK government agency for funding research and training in engineering and the physical sciences, investing more than £850 million a year in a broad range of subjects — from mathematics to materials science, and from information technology to structural engineering. For more information, see www.epsrc.ac.uk.

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