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Computer science class seeks more success in FAA design competition

By : Greg Norman

Binghamton University student engineers can remain at the forefront of innovative aviation planning by defending their awards from 2009’s Federal Aviation Administration Design Competition.

The competition, which draws interest from schools nationwide, asks undergraduate and graduate students to create engineering solutions for airport-related issues.

Last year, two designs worked on by 44 students from professor William Ziegler’s Professional Ethics and Communications computer science class took first place in the “Airport Operation and Maintenance” and “Airport Environmental Interactions” categories. Students collaborated with the Greater Binghamton Airport and McFarland Johnson, a local engineering firm, for both proposals.

In the first category, students created a proposal for a geothermal heating system that could melt snow and ice on runways for safe landings.

“Even in the winter, we can draw heat out of the ground and run it through a process to send out hot liquid, which would be similar to antifreeze throughout all these tubes that are underneath the pavement,” Ziegler said.

Ziegler, McFarland Johnson and the Greater Binghamton Airport have been in talks with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to have the design incorporated into the airport by next year with the earliest construction beginning April.

In the second category, students designed a process to increase the efficiency of transporting glycol to treatment facilities. Glycol, a chemical used to de-ice planes, is drained into containers underneath an airport’s runway, where it is mixed with dirt and water. By using a high-powered vacuum, the class figured out that the water in the containers could be evaporated after boiling it to 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

According to Ziegler, by removing the water, which makes up 85 percent of the mixture, trucks can transport more glycol to a treatment facility with fewer trips.
Last year’s projects were the first that students have worked on with engineers from McFarland Johnson, said Chad Nixon, vice president of the company.

Class members received word that their projects had won in May, and along with a check divided up from a $5,000 cash prize, each student received a personal thank-you call from Ziegler.

Ziegler then decided in the summer to enter his classes again in the competition in the two categories they won.

“It’s one of the best things I think the University can do for its students — to have them involved in things like this,” he said. “The advantages for the University and students to get this national recognition and to do something in this community far outweigh the amount of work that it takes.”

This semester in the environmental category, students will be working to create a lighting system for airports that have no electricity so planes can depart and arrive during nighttime hours.

According to Ziegler, the idea for the project came from Binghamton’s wind turbine near the East Gym, which is used to power GEM cars.

“I’m enthralled by that — it’s spinning 90 percent of the time. It just intrigues me that this is free energy,” he said.

To light a runway, the class plans to design a system that uses a wind turbine to charge a bank of batteries. These batteries will then power an electrical inverter, which creates 120 volts of electricity — the typical voltage of a runway lighting system, Ziegler said.

“The challenge is to be able to provide enough power to light 50 lights from a very small bank of batteries for the amount of time that we need while the wind turbine is charging the batteries,” he said. “It’s complicated figuring out how many batteries we need, and how long it will take them to charge and discharge while lighting the lights.”

The second project, in the airport operations category, is to design a robotic camera system that would alert air traffic controllers of debris on runways.

The system, which would be installed on top of an airport’s control tower, would take a 180-degree series of pictures of the runway every 45 seconds.

“When it starts over, if there’s a difference in pixels between the previous photo that it took (at a certain location), then it could mean that there’s something on the runway,” Ziegler said.

A computer program along with the camera would allow an operator to zoom in on an individual pixel to obtain a better view of a potentially dangerous foreign object for planes.

Objects include pieces of pavement, broken runway lights, wrenches, metal strip, and other debris, according to FAA regulations.

Ziegler’s inspiration for the project came from a recent article published on the Concorde plane crash in France in 2000, where it is believed that a small metal strip was kicked up into the plane’s engine by one of its wheels, creating a fire after it took off.

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Last Updated: 10/14/08