Computer to Command Aircraft Carrier Traffic
Advanced avionics may guide the planes, and GPS satellite systems may direct the bombs, but on U.S. aircraft carriers, naval officers still coordinate takeoffs and landings with cardboard models.
That analog system may have worked well for the last 60 years, but the Navy will need some computerized brainpower to organize the vertical takeoff stealth fighters and swarms of robot drones that they envision populating carrier decks in the future.
Such computer aid may ease the stress when just one small hiccup can disrupt the choreography of 60 aircraft lined up on a deck the size of 4.5 football fields. A new computer system designed by MIT not only tracks the locations of flight deck crew, vehicles and planes, but also quickly suggests new schedules based on random events such as a launch failure or an incoming fighter jet running low on fuel.
"People are working elbow-to-elbow with vehicles that could potentially kill them," said Mary "Missy" Cummings, an aeronautics engineer at MIT. "So the question is, can you actually figure out a better way to move the flow of traffic around a deck to mitigate the chances of someone being hit?"
The MIT team proved its system's capabilities in a recent live demo that used tiny robots to act out the reordering of scheduled landings and takeoffs.
Of pilots and drones
As one of the first female aviators in the U.S. Navy , Cummings knows all about the challenges aboard a carrier. She and her MIT students created the monitoring system to cut down on the number of crew members needed to direct the deck traffic and reduce the risk of accidents.
Every person and aircraft would need to have sensors or electronic tags to help the computer system keep track of everything. But that could make the system especially useful for directing a growing fleet of unmanned robotic drones that already carry such sensors, said Mark Steinberg, program officer for the Office of Naval Research.
[Read More: Human Test Pilots Still Rule in Age of Drones ]
"The long-term goal is, we would like to have unmanned autonomous systems onboard, which requires special procedures where you'd have to clear everything off the deck and implement certain safety measures," Steinberg said. "We would like to make this as easy as possible as we introduce more and more UAVs onto carriers."
No simple game
Naval officers may also appreciate having a 21st-century computer interface. They currently use a so-called "Ouija board," where they typically move small plane-shaped cutouts around and use color-coded pins to sort out which aircraft need refueling or maintenance.
But the MIT researchers don't want to hand over all control of humans and aircraft to computers. The DCAP system only gives suggestions so that the naval officers can better direct the action and still deal with more unusual scenarios such as seeing that a pilot with a history of shaky landings is due to land.
he botches it [the first time], we have enough time to try and give him
another try," said Jason Ryan, a Ph.D. student in engineering at MIT.
"That's something that's hard to program into systems, but it's
something that a human can look at and understand."