Toward Efficient Airport Operations
10/26/2010 4:00 PM 4"237Hamsa Balakrishnan, Asst Professor, Aero Astro and Engineering SystemsDescription: Few of us would elect to spend countless hours at the airport watching planes arrive, depart and sit at gates. But what constitutes a punishment for some actually energizes Hamsa Balakrishnan, whose research focuses on improving airport operations. Her goal is to make air travel more efficient, robust and green.
Flying is quite frequently a trial these days, Balakrishnan acknowledges, with delays growing yearly, even during the recession when actual flights decreased. Congestion at the nation's busiest airports is primarily responsible for these delays, which produce billion"dollar losses for the airlines, environmental damage as idling planes burn millions of gallons of fuel, and untold aggravation for passengers. If gridlock at these airports is not addressed, these problems will only worsen, says Balakrishnan, with the projected doubling by 2025 of the nation's approximately 35 thousand daily flights.
With a team of students, Balakrishnan has been analyzing airport operations. Air traffic controllers must routinely separate plane landings by a few minutes, and balance the need for safety with maximum efficiency. With departures, controllers attempt to respond to pilots on a first come, first served basis, but must pause for arrivals if runways are busy, and must juggle take"off order if planes are due at other airports. The current model for scheduling, called constrained position shifting, says Balakrishnan, has "been conjectured to have exponential computational complexity," and most important, does not seem the optimal method for controllers dealing with busy, real"time conditions.
Balakrishnan has recently broken through conventional scheduling complexities. Her approach involves developing simple, practical algorithms that improve takeoff and landing efficiency while factoring in typical aircraft arrival and departure protocol, and weather, among other factors. She is now testing her own scheduling models at Boston's Logan Airport, at rush hour. So far, her team has achieved improvements in "runway throughput" equivalent to two"three extra flights per hour -- a 10"12% improvement in average flight delay.
She is also working on reducing the amount of time planes spend waiting in departure queues burning fuel, a phenomenon resulting from saturation in ground traffic. In tests with Boston controllers, her team used color"coded cards to signal when planes should actually push back from the gate and fire up their engines. By manipulating pushback rates, says Balakrishnan, you can significantly decrease the amount of fuel burned, reducing CO2 and particulate release. Controllers also felt things "flowed better," she says. Next steps include a comprehensive evaluation of benefits, with an eye to developing "scalable control and optimization algorithms" for an increasingly busy aviation system. About the Speaker(s): Hamsa Balakrishnan received a B.Tech. in Aerospace Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras in 2000 and a Ph.D. in Aeronautics and Astronautics from Stanford University in 2006. Between May and December 2006, she was a researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz and the NASA Ames Research Center. Her research interests address various aspects of air transportation systems, including algorithms for air traffic scheduling and routing, integrating weather forecasts into air traffic management and minimizing aviation"related emissions; air traffic surveillance algorithms; and mechanisms for the allocation of airport and airspace resources. She was a recipient of the NSF CAREER Award in 2008.Host(s): School of Engineering, Transportation@MIT
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