A cockpit display system being developed at Michigan Technological University would alert pilots of small planes about other aircraft in the vicinity and drastically reduce the number of mid-air collisions.
"Currently the United States records about 25 mid-air collisions a year," says project leader Dr. Jeffrey Burl of Michigan Tech's Department of Electrical Engineering. "We believe we can develop low-cost avionics that will reduce that number to zero." Burl's project is being funded by a 2-year, $90,000 grant from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Burl says large commercial aircraft use Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems (TCAS) to keep track of other aircraft in the vicinity. These systems allow the computers in those planes to "talk back and forth to one another" and afford a high degree of safety. But they are also very expensive, costing about $100,000 a unit.
"These systems are obviously beyond the means of most private small aircraft owners," says Burl. "Yet we have the technology to provide much of the same information available through TCAS to smaller planes at a much lower cost. If you want to save lives, you have to get a lot of collision-alert systems out in the field. To accomplish that, the cost must be reasonable. Our goal is to develop a cockpit display system that can be purchased and installed for about $3,000."
Burl says the system he is developing includes a passive radar that detects and decodes Global Positioning System (GPS) squitter signals transmitted by other aircraft and is also capable of decoding Traffic Information System (TIS) uplink data received from ground radar units.
The system will primarily use TIS information where ground radar is available, according to Burl. In these environments, GPS squitter data will serve to validate TIS information and serve as a backup to the TIS system. In non-radar environments, GPS squitter information is used as the primary source of traffic information.
"The system incorporates a cockpit display that presents bearings and range to nearby aircraft, relative velocity and altitude of nearby aircraft, and the relative altitude rate," explains Burl. "Furthermore, collision hazards are identified with visual and audio messages to the pilot. This information greatly increases flight safety by improving the situational awareness of the general aviation pilot."
Additional systems could be developed to suggest collision avoidance maneuvers to pilots based on available information, Burl says. He says the cockpit display would be especially valuable near large airports where most potential problems exist and where ground traffic control personnel may not always have time to deal with small aircraft.