Professor Helps NASA and FAA with Airport Technology

A new system could allow for better airport management, fewer delays, lower operation costs and increased safety.

by Andres David Lopez, McClatchy News Service / February 17, 2014

In Macon, Ga., a Mercer University professor is helping NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration develop technology they hope will make traffic control on airport runways and taxiways safer and more efficient.

Behnam Kamali, professor of electrical and computer engineering, has been working with the new technology that's called Aeronautical Mobile Airport Communications System, or AeroMACS, since 2010.

The new system could allow for better airport management, fewer delays, lower operation costs and increased safety, said Robert Kerczewski, NASA electronics engineer.

AeroMACS is being developed exclusively for communication taking place between traffic towers and aircraft when they are on the ground.

The technology is digitally based, unlike the analog radar and communications systems currently used. The difference between digital and analog is that digital produces "error-free" communication and allows for signal security through encryption. It also allows digital data to be used for countless applications to maximize traffic safety and efficiency, Kamali said.

The first wave of applications involve employing a system of sensors on airport surfaces to continuously map the location of all aircraft and vehicles. Right now, traffic control towers mostly use sight to determine the location of aircraft on runways and taxiways. Eventually, AeroMACS could allow airports to use automation, Kerczewski said.

The technology is also wireless, which is a cheaper alternative to installing fiber-optic wire beneath airport surfaces.

"Not having to place wires underground is a very lucrative reason for using AeroMACS," Kerczewski said.

The problem is that AeroMACS technology is relatively new and untested on a large scale. There are inherent limits, such as signal decay caused by the use of a high-frequency band for data transmission and communication.

The limited signal reach problem means AeroMACS base stations, which Kamali compared to cellphone towers, would have to be built close to each other to cover a large airport.

This is where Kamali comes in.

His research calls for the use of relays, or electronic repeaters, instead of more than one or two base stations, to retransmit wireless signals, so they reach the entire airport.

He presented his work at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, where AeroMACS technology has been tested since 2010.

"Everybody got excited," he said.

Kamali's work is important because if AeroMACS is adopted on a global scale and power output is not monitored, it has the potential to interfere with other communication systems like satellite networks, Kerczewski said.

The relays promoted by Kamali's research will allow for an increase in the coverage area and capacity of an AeroMACS system without exceeding power limitations that would threaten satellites.

Kamali completed much of his work at the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland over several summers as part of the agency's faculty research program. He is a seven-time fellow and also has spent time at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

"The idea is to give the professors an opportunity to work with NASA and increase their experience at the same time they become familiar with a NASA project and contribute to that project," Kerczewski said.

Kamali, an Iranian immigrant who has been in the United States since 1976 and at Mercer since 1993, is planning to apply again for a fellowship this summer.

This year, AeroMACS will be tested at nine airports across the country, including in San Francisco; Andrews Air Force Base; Anchorage, Alaska; and New Orleans. The FAA is interested in developing the technology as part of a modernization effort and has funded testing, Kerczewski said.

"If it's demonstrated well at the nine airports, I think we'll have more people knocking at the door for it," he said.

©2014 The Macon Telegraph (Macon, Ga.)