If you think working as an air traffic controller at an airport sounds stressful, imagine doing the same kind of work in the close confines of an aircraft carrier. Up to 60 aircraft can be continually taking off and landing, on a 4.5-acre (1.82-hectare) strip of deck that's also occupied by numerous people and vehicles. For decades, a deck handling system that consists of plane-shaped cut-outs and color-coded thumbtacks has been used, but it's only as reliable as the people placing those objects. An associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics from MIT has now devised a computer system, Deck operations Course of Action Planner (DCAP), that she believes could make things safer and more efficient.

Mary ("Missy") Cummings, working with students from MIT's Humans and Automation Lab, started by identifying factors that dictate flight deck traffic, such aircraft fuel levels, flight schedules, and the status of deck machinery such as launch catapults. They then designed an algorithm that takes such factors into account, and creates an optimal schedule. It is capable of changing that schedule on the fly, should the need arise.

That algorithm was paired with a computer interface, that displays an overhead view of the aircraft carrier's deck, with the current positions of all aircraft, ground crew and vehicles indicated. A panel at one side lists the type and status of aircraft that are waiting to launch and land, while a bottom panel displays the status of deck machinery, and indicates when failures have occurred.

In order for the system to work, all of the planes, people and vehicles would need to be equipped with sensors such as radio frequency tags, so their positions could be tracked.

Although DCAP provides a suggested schedule, human operators would still be making the final decisions. This could prove particularly important in situations such as dealing with inexperienced pilots, who need more time and space.

While designed for aircraft carriers, the MIT system could also find use in other applications. "It could be used in a commercial airport ... or in the trucking industry," said Cummings. "Boeing has suggested it could help them improve efficiency of their aircraft-manufacturing processing line. If we could show that this could be done in a carrier environment, then everything else would ... be a piece of cake."