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Computer science teams win FAA Design Competition
July 5, 2011Tweet
For the third year straight, Associate Professor of Computer Science William Ziegler ’76 and his computer science student teams have placed first and second in two categories of the National Federal Aviation Administration Design Competition. The technical design competition invites undergraduate and graduate students to tackle airport issues that fall within broad categories including airport operation and maintenance, runway safety/runway incursions, airport environmental interactions, and airport management and planning.
Up against some of the top aeronautical and aviation colleges and programs in the nation, Ziegler said he’s as surprised as any at their continued success.
“I already felt they were gunning for us last year and now they’ve had the opportunity to see and analyze our style,” he said. “But maybe they’re so embedded in it (aviation), that as novices we see things differently.”
Essentially, the competition is a writing exercise, and as the teams’ coach, Ziegler demands the best from his students. “You don’t have to build these things but you do have to explain them well,” he said. “I teach my students that if we don’t do something right, we have to revise over and over again, sometimes up to five times before it’s right.”
While the FAA competition is judged on the team effort, grades in the course are still based on individual contribution. So even a first-place finish in the national competition doesn’t guarantee every student an A. “If we don’t win, would I give everyone an F?” Ziegler said.
The continued success is not without its challenges, though. For some students, this class falls in the final semester of their senior year. Some already have jobs and, because it’s a required course, you can’t assume that everyone wants to be there or that everyone wants to do things five times over to win.
“There are students who just are not interested for whatever reason, but I still demand that they work to their highest potential,” Ziegler said. “In past courses, they’ve been allowed to rise or fall according to their own whims, where I want them to rise or fall according to their own abilities.
“We have really smart students here, but there are a lot of smart students in other places, too,” he said. “But I think we see some of the (aviation) problems more clearly because we’re not in it every day. And we also come up with solutions that others don’t because we look at it from an outsider’s view.”
The first-place team of students developed procedures to remediate dangerous and environmentally hazardous fuel spills.
Planes are fueled by trucks on the airport apron, and regardless of whether it’s from human error or mechanical malfunction, a fuel spill could be disastrous to the environment, and ignition of a spill could be deadly.
Students found a winning solution right on the Binghamton University campus. A pervious concrete bed behind Bingham Hall allows rainwater to seep through the concrete quickly to be released into the ground rather than pooling on top.
For their airport design, the team mapped a grid on the test bed and determined how quickly water was dispensed per square foot of pervious concrete. With that base, they calculated how large of a bed would be needed at the airport to catch a fuel spill. Under the pervious concrete they designed a collection system. Rainwater could be released naturally but a spill would be captured for disposal with no opportunity for ignition or damage to the environment.
Another team of students took second place for its innovative smartphone application aimed at increasing efficiencies during airport emergencies.
Currently, when a plane goes off radar, an emergency transmission with the latitude and longitude of the potential crash location is sent to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA uses paper maps to determine which airport is nearest to that latitude and longitude. That airport must then determine if or what emergency measures are needed, eating up precious time in the search for survivors.
“A latitude and a longitude mean nothing until the coordinates are converted to a geographic location, so there are planes that are not found for a long time,” Ziegler explained. “People say, ‘Well isn’t that enough information.’ But I’ve asked probably 100 people, ‘Do you know the latitude and longitude of where we are right now?’ There is never a person who knows the answer, including myself. So what good is it?”
In the team’s solution, the latitude and longitude is still sent to NOAA. But NOAA and every airport have a smartphone with an app. When a transmission is received, NOAA’s phone recognizes the location immediately and calls the nearest airport. Then the app provides the airport with GPS turn-by-turn directions that not only lead responders to the closest road, but guide them through off-road terrain to the exact accident location.