EU project develops novel air traffic control system

A team of European researchers has developed an innovative traffic control system to increase airport safety even in the worst weather conditions, using magnetic field detectors, the
researchers within the EU-funded ISMAEL project have developed a system allowing air traffic controllers to pinpoint the location and movement of aeroplanes during their time at airports.

The system relies on an array of small, inexpensive sensors to monitor the ‘magnetic fingerprint’ that the planes’ metallic bodies leave on the Earth’s magnetic field. The technology has been
tested at airports in Frankfurt and Saarbruecken in Germany, and in Thessaloniki in Greece.

‘Our tests have shown that the system detects all passing aircraft, 100% of them, and in 75% of cases can pinpoint their location to within 7.5 metres – a level of accuracy comparable to most
existing air traffic management systems,’ explains Haibin Gao, the project leader from Saarland University, Germany.

According to the researchers, the system offers advantages over the ground-based monitoring systems in use today. As it relies on detecting changes in the Earth’s magnetic field, the Ismael
system can see through obstacles, such as buildings and airport parking lots, as well as the thickest fog or heaviest downpour.

‘Thessaloniki airport has a major problem with fog, so bad in fact that it has to close for part of the year because air traffic controllers can’t see the aircraft at the end of the runway two
kilometres away. In the tests, the Ismael system showed it can solve that problem,’ said Dr Gao.

According to the project manager, the system lived up to the researchers’ expectations in all the trials it performed, and has continued to prove its worth in Frankfurt where it is still
operating on an experimental basis. The system has also elicited interest from other airport authorities around the world, although it is likely that it will take a few more years before it is
used commercially.

Furthermore, the technology is not solely confined to monitoring planes alone. ‘During the course of the project, we saw the potential to use this system in crowded airport parking lots to
monitor car traffic and let drivers know where unoccupied spaces are available,’ Dr Gao added.

The ‘Intelligent surveillance and management functions for airfield applications based on low cost magnetic field detectors’ project was funded under the EU’s Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) to
the tune of ?2.13 million.

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