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Computer system designed to manage aircraft carrier deck traffic


August 2, 2011

A new computer system has been designed to make managing the traffic on aircraft carrier flight decks more efficient

A new computer system has been designed to make managing the traffic on aircraft carrier flight decks more efficient

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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."

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

When I saw this post a while back http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2011/04/navy-wants-mouse-click-flying-for-its-carrier-based-drone/

It made think that in the near future that the number of aircraft landing and taking off from US carriers is going to increase exponentially. While there will be less (potentially no) humans in the aircraft, it is likely the number of humans on the deck will remain the same. As such software as described above is timely.

What I think is more interesting is the idea, that in the future that aircraft carriers the majority of aircraft will be remotely piloted. It's kind of the equivalent of the Star Wars trade federation battle droid army at the fingertip of the Viceroy in his Control Ship.

I think we can expect the emerging carrier fleets of China and India to follow this model. Could this be the straw to break the back of the US's global military dominance?

Patrick Stapleton

It\'ll be interesting to see if this technology will actually be useful.

Frequently, aircraft carriers go to complete electronic blackout. Zero transmissions. That could be an issue to be addressed.

Also, unless the system is accurate a to within a couple of inches on all axes, there will be mishaps. Space in a hanger bay and on the flight deck is precious. Allowances must be made for maintenance crews to move wheeled equipment (nitrogen carts, LOX carts, tow tractors, power carts, etc.) as well as for the crew to move between them. It\'s more than just efficiently placing them, you also need to consider overhead obstructions (there are semi-portable maintenance facilities that are hung from the overhead and also storage for droptanks in the hangerbay), the placement of deck-mounted firefighting equipment, and power/fuel lines.

I saw such an incident on a Nimitz class carrier. An E-2 in hanger bay 1 was moved two feet aft to allow the aircraft handlers to move another aircraft for maintenance. When the handlers put the E-2 back in position, it was six inches further forward than it had been. It turned out to be a grievous error. No one involved deemed it of any consequence.

The E-2 had been tied down, initially, while an armored hatch on an in-deck munitions elevator was open. The plane\'s tail then had a hands breadth of clearance. Later on, the weapons crew needing to use that elevator, just went ahead an opened the hatch again. It was a big elevator with a hydraulically actuated hatch. The thing probably weighed several tons. You could park a tank on it.

Unfortunately, because the E-2 was not in the exact same position, the hatch clipped the tail of the E-2 when it opened. There was plenty of grief for all concerned.

Inches count.

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