Scheduling key to green, efficient airports

October 20, 2009

A new computerised approach to airport operations is being developed that will reduce delays, speed up baggage handling and decrease pollution. The project is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and led by researchers at The University of Nottingham.

This research work 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 highly 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 can lead to delays snowballing.

As well as enhancing the experience for passengers, crucially, the improvements in 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 vital improvement given the predicted growth in air travel.

A consortium of researchers from four universities 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 regular PCs. Key to the research will be examining how to run them all together to streamline overall operations.

Principal investigator on the project and Dean of the Faculty of Science at The University of Nottingham, Professor Edmund Burke, says the limitations of the current systems are widely acknowledged. "Many people in the industry recognise that automating just one of these aspects could improve the efficient running of airport operations, so integrating all four would be a huge step forward.

"We'll be developing a computer system that will work its way through the many billions of permutations created daily in each of these operations, to provide a much higher level of computer-aided decision support than is currently available," says Burke. This will provide the best possible advice to runway controllers and other airport staff to inform their decisions regarding where planes and baggage are moved to.

Among the crucial issues being tackled is the matter of how long an aeroplane needs for preparation on the ground before takeoff. 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 takeoff. This can lead to unnecessary congestion on the runway, aircraft unnecessarily using up fuel while waiting for takeoff, and, potentially, delays to other flights.

Burke adds that the involvement of the two airports will also provide invaluable assistance to the multi-disciplinary team of scientists and engineers. "Working closely with Manchester and Zurich airports will ensure access to real world expertise that should help us achieve the best possible result." The academic team in the consortium consists of representatives from: The University of Nottingham, University of Salford, Loughborough University and University of Liverpool.
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Notes to editors: The four-year research project 'Integrating and Automating Airport Operations' will begin on December 1 2009 and is scheduled to end on November 30 2013. It has received EPSRC funding of £681,924.

Research by the Georgia Institute of Technology in 2006 found that a one per cent increase in air transport leads to a five per cent increase in delays. With a 26 per cent rise in air transport expected by 2013, compared to 2006, (according to the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation) this project could help airports change the way they operate.

The project is one of six to emerge from the Research Councils' Energy Programme's Sandpit on Airport Operations, held in November 2008. This was a multi-disciplinary and cross-institutional initiative to examine the challenges surrounding reduction of the environmental impact of airport operations, excluding the aeroplanes. Representatives of government, industry and academia participated, creating a unique forum for debating the issues and creation of research projects that were unlikely to come together without the sandpit.

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)

EPSRC is the main UK government agency for funding research and training in engineering and the physical sciences, investing more than £850 million a year in a broad range of subjects -- from mathematics to materials science, and from information technology to structural engineering. See www.epsrc.ac.uk

The University of Nottingham

The University of Nottingham is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 100 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and Times Higher (THE) World University Rankings.

More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to RAE 2008, with almost 60 per cent of all research defined as 'world-leading' or 'internationally excellent'. Research Fortnight analysis of RAE 2008 ranks the University 7th in the UK by research power. In 27 subject areas, the University features in the UK Top Ten, with 14 of those in the Top Five.

The University provides innovative and top quality teaching, undertakes world-changing research, and attracts talented staff and students from 150 nations. Described by The Times as Britain's "only truly global university", it has invested continuously in award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. Twice since 2003 its research and teaching academics have won Nobel Prizes. Nottingham has won the Queen's Award for Enterprise in both 2006 (International Trade) and 2007 (Innovation, School of Pharmacy), and was 'Entrepreneurial University of the Year' at the 2008 Times Higher Education Awards.

Nottingham was designated as a Science City in 2005 in recognition of its rich scientific heritage, industrial base and role as a leading research centre. Nottingham has since embarked on a wide range of business, property, knowledge transfer and educational initiatives (www.science-city.co.uk) in order to build on its growing reputation as an international centre of scientific excellence. The University of Nottingham is a partner in Nottingham: the Science City.

More information is available from Professor Edmund Burke, The University of Nottingham, on edmund.burke@nottingham.ac.uk; or Media Relations Manager Simon Butt in the University's Communications Office on +44 (0)115 951 5793, simon.butt@nottingham.ac.uk

Images are available from the EPSRC Press Office on 01793 444404 or email: pressoffice@epsrc.ac.uk

University of Nottingham
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