Project aims to integrate key airport operations

Researchers are developing a new computerised approach to airport operations that they hope will reduce delays, speed up baggage handling and decrease pollution.

The project, which will be led by the University of Nottingham, aims to computerise and co-ordinate four key areas of airport operations: scheduling of aeroplanes taking-off and landing, gate assignment and baggage handling. The end result will be a prototype search engine capable of analysing the many billions of possible scheduling combinations so as to provide the best advice to the controllers, who decide where in the airport to send planes.

Currently these four aspects of airport operations are, in most cases, organised manually by skilled staff making decisions based on observations, reports and their experience. Furthermore, 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 means that delays can snowball.

As well as enhancing the experience for passengers, improved scheduling will reduce pollution by minimising the time planes are on the ground with engines running. This could save thousands of litres of aviation fuel every year.

A consortium of researchers from the universities of Nottingham, Salford, Loughborough and Liverpool are involved in the project, assisted by Manchester and Zurich Airports, which will provide crucial advice and expertise from the user’s point of view.

The project will see development of computational models for each of the four airport operations which, ultimately, will be run on standard PCs. Key to the research will be examining how to run them all together to streamline overall operations.

Among the crucial issues being tackled is the matter of how long an aeroplane needs for preparation on the ground before take off. This has to include enough time for the passenger safety briefing, which is a legal requirement, and for the engines to warm up. If sent to the runway without incorporating enough time for these activities, it will mean a delay at the runway before take off. This can lead to unnecessary congestion and increased fuel use.

The four-year project 'Integrating and Automating Airport Operations' will begin on 1 December 2009 and is scheduled to end on 30 November 2013. It has received funding of £681,924 from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

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