Synthetic Vision technology as it will look in the cockpit of Ohio University's DC-3.

Ohio University is making air travel safer through
innovative developments in flight technology

Story by Andrea Caruso Gibson * Photography by Rick Fatica

As you move your seat into its upright position and nibble those last few salted peanuts, your plane makes a gentle descent to the airport. The aircraft moves toward the lighted runway, and the comforting rumble of wheels against asphalt greets your ears. The pilot has made landing look like a piece of cake.

You can thank researchers at Ohio University's Avionics Engineering Center for making hauling an overstuffed suitcase to the shuttle the biggest concern of your next flight. The center, known internationally, boasts a track record of research, development, testing and installation of new avionics systems designed to make flight safer and airports more efficient. And with more people expected to hop on the sky highway in coming years, it's work that will impact thousands of travelers.

Although plane crashes have made big news in recent years, the accident rate in aviation is quite low, says Jim Rankin, director of the Avionics Engineering Center. He hopes that continues to be the case as more aircraft take to the skies.

"In the next 10 years, we expect the amount of air travel to double," he says. "If you keep the same accident rate but double the number of flights, it means the number of accidents are going to go up. So we want to reduce the accident rate."

Agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration, NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense, as well as state and foreign governments and private industry, have awarded the center nearly $40 million in contracts to solve safety problems. And although the center focuses on research rather than teaching, scientists often bring students into the fold to gain research experience.

Since its inception in 1963, the center - operating solely on external funding - has explored new technologies to assist aircraft in the skies and on the ground. Researchers are working to improve landings and runway movement through Global Positioning System technology, expected to be in widespread use within a decade. They have been testing the system, which uses satellites to guide planes during flight, as an easier, more efficient and cost-effective way to direct aircraft from one airport to another.

Currently, a plane flying from Washington, D.C., to Chicago, for example, must pass over a series of ground checkpoints to keep on course. But GPS, with help from supplemental systems being developed at the center, would allow aircraft to navigate by satellite and land with precision, says Dave Diggle, assistant director of the center.

"The ultimate goal is to use limited ground resources," he says.

The technologies also could help airports handle more air traffic without expanding their facilities.

"Putting more concrete down at an airport is an expensive proposition, and building more airports is a tough thing to do because there just isn't room without getting into a congested area," Rankin says.

Dave Diggle with a datalink transmitter, which creates a three-dimensional image of the terrain for pilots.
A new project researchers are developing, Synthetic Vision, uses satellite technology to arm pilots with better data about the terrain - the ground below, mountains and other flight-path obstacles, says Maarten Uijt de Haag, the project's principal investigator.

"If the weather conditions are bad, if you're flying through fog or through mountains, the pilot can't become aware of the terrain just from looking out the window," says Uijt de Haag, a visiting assistant professor in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

The Synthetic Vision system will use terrain data collected in the recent Space Shuttle Radar Topography Mission and aircraft positions from the GPS satellite network to create a three-dimensional image pilots can view in the cockpit. Uijt de Haag's team is scheduled to test the system this spring and summer and, if it's successful, build a prototype for NASA in another year or two.

Robert Gray, BSEE '89 and PHD '99, now an assistant professor of electrical engineering at Penn State's Erie campus, proposed the Synthetic Vision concept in his doctoral dissertation. He continues to serve as a consultant to the project, traveling to Athens several times a year to work with the team.

"This has value because it can benefit everyone who flies, including our friends and families," says Gray, who while serving in the Air Force lost friends and colleagues in plane crashes that Synthetic Vision may have averted.

Aircraft safety isn't just a concern thousands of feet in the air. Senior Research Engineer Mike DiBenedetto, head of the center's Runway Incursion Reduction Program, is studying ways to address the number of aircraft and vehicles that wind up on the runway at the wrong place and time. Though pilots and air traffic controllers can observe runway activity from cockpits and towers and rely on runway lights for help, there's still room for safety improvements, DiBenedetto says.

"The biggest problem we have using these visual aids is that when the weather gets bad or it gets dark, you're limited in what you can do," he says.

Avionics at a glance

  • Part of the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, the Avionics Engineering Center is headquartered in the Stocker Engineering and Technology Center on Ohio University's main campus and has a $1 million facility at the Gordon K. Bush/Ohio University Airport that houses a hangar, flight program support and a laboratory. It uses the Kendall-Tamiami Executive Airport in Miami, Fla., as a year-round test site.
  • Eighteen engineers, 11 support staff members, 22 students and seven faculty members are employed at the center.
  • Student interns have earned the prestigious William E. Jackson Award, which recognizes the application of electronic technology to aviation issues, 10 times in the award's 25-year history.
Researchers have developed the Local Area Augmentation System to give traffic controllers and pilots more accurate information about their proximity to other aircraft and stationary objects. The program, which can estimate an aircraft's position within about a yard, is designed to supplement the GPS. Though the center has built a prototype, it might be several years before it's ready for commercial use, DiBenedetto says.

Avionics scientists are accustomed to waiting 15 to 20 years to see their work reach the airport or cockpit, Rankin says, because "this is a very safety-oriented industry."

Daryl McCall, BSEE '80 and MSEE '85, is technical director for air transport systems at Rockwell Collins Inc., an Iowa-based company that designs and produces avionics systems. He learned the importance of aviation safety as a student pilot and engineer with the center.

McCall helped write one of the early GPS grant proposals as an undergraduate and later worked with the technology as a NASA intern. Today, it's his specialty with Rockwell Collins, where he often hires Ohio University students to fill internship slots.

"The little seeds I was able to plant years ago have been picked up by other engineers and have evolved," McCall says. "GPS, to this date, has been the sole subject of my career. Had I not been at the Avionics Center, I probably wouldn't be here."

The Avionics Engineering Center has traveled a considerable distance from its humble beginnings more than 35 years ago, when its staff comprised one faculty member and a graduate student. Through the years, it has collected aviation awards and patents for technology development and fostered a reputation for quality research.

"With each new research project, the center continues its role in increasing safety and reliability for future air travel," Rankin says.

Andrea Caruso Gibson, BSJ '94, is an assistant editor in the Office of Research Communications.

Features | Departments | Bobcat Tracks | Back Issues
OHIO TODAY online Front Door | Ohio University Front Door