Making Flight Safer With the "Internet of Airplanes"

Making Flight Safer With the "Internet of Airplanes"

Rear view of airplane in the sky.

Researchers envision a future in which airplanes in flight share sensor data across an “internet of airplanes” to improve safety and efficiency. But when nodes in the network move at the speed of flight, realizing that vision requires a data sharing framework adapted to the challenges and needs of the environment.

With a three-year $325,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, Rensselaer computer scientists Stacy Patterson and Carlos Varela have teamed up to develop a prototype framework, the “Virtual Sky” platform, to fuse and analyze flight sensor data correctly, reliably, and quickly. Virtual Sky would serve as a model extension of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Next Generation Air Transportation System, a sweeping modernization of the National Airspace System that includes greater use of computer and satellite systems in air traffic elements like communication, navigation, weather, information management, and tracking.

“We see Virtual Sky as an infrastructure, and like the infrastructure of the internet, it will have basic protocols, and basic ways to transmit data, on top of which applications will be built,” Varela says.

Although some elements of air traffic have already transitioned to “NextGen” systems, a surprising amount of the information shared between airplanes depends on radio transmissions between pilots, and pilot observations, leaving much room for improvement.

The challenge, Patterson says, is that an “internet of airplanes” is a dynamic environment, with airplanes moving in multiple dimensions, directions, and speeds, and with varying connectivity.

The project builds on the combined experience of the researchers. Varela, associate professor of computer science, is a licensed pilot and a middleware architecture expert with extensive domain knowledge researching computer systems that monitor and detect faulty aircraft sensor readings. A system he developed in 2014 detects and corrects faulty airspeed readings, such as those that contributed to the 2009 crash of Air France flight 447. Patterson, associate professor of computer science, is an expert in distributed algorithms, sensor networks, and the Internet of Things and has also been developing automobile sensor networks.

Ultimately, say Varela and Patterson, Virtual Sky is about giving pilots better information to make better decisions.

“In commercial aviation, humans will ultimately make the decision. But a computer can give a much faster and more accurate assessment of the current conditions, and that can help the humans in the situation make better decisions,” Varela says.

  • Computational Science and Engineering
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