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ECE Students Win First Place in FAA Design Competition By Creating Virtual Geofences to Protect Airports from Drones

ASPECTS team and their demo drone

ASPECTS team with drone

The student team of UMass electrical engineering majors Alex Breger, Chris Boselli, Jason Danis, and Sandra McQueen received first place for the winning design in the “Runway Safety/Runway Incursions/Runway Excursions” category of the 2015-2016 Transportation Research Board (TRB) Airport Cooperative Research Program's University Design Competition for Addressing Airport Needs. The team’s winning design would establish a virtual “geofence,” similar to an invisible fence for dogs, around the perimeter of an airport to keep drones from intruding into that airspace and creating hazards for manned airplanes.

The winning design was titled “Airport Secure Perimeter Control System (ASPECTS),” which was also the team’s 2016 Senior Design Project for the Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Department. See final report on ASPECTS for the Senior Design Project

Dr. Daiheng Ni of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department and Dr. Douglas Looze from the ECE department served as the faculty advisors for the winning team. Professor Ni is an expert on traffic management technology for unmanned aircraft systems (UAVs), or drones, while Professor Looze is an expert in feedback control systems.

The competition encourages out-of-the-box approaches to airport issues while providing quality educational experiences and exposure to aviation and airport-related careers. Student designs offer novel thinking on airport operations including accommodations for aging travelers, using drones for removing debris from runways, improving options for applying energy-saving technology, presenting an innovative approach to queuing for security checkpoint lines, and designing a software program to optimize runway allocations. The competition was sponsored by the Federal Aviation Administration and managed by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine through the TRB.

The winning design for ASPECTS provides a “universal geofencing solution which may be incorporated on future drone models or retrofitted on previous designs.” If a drone pilot flies the unmanned aircraft within approximately 1,000 feet of a No-Fly zone (such as an airport), ASPECTS will send the pilot an initial warning message allowing time for the flightpath to be manually redirected. If the drone pilot does not take corrective action before the drone reaches the critical zone, the ASPECTS on-board controller will switch to auto-pilot mode and prevent the drone from entering the perimeter by hovering, landing, or returning the unmanned aircraft to its launch point.

“This geofence effectively creates a physical barrier around the perimeter of the airport (or other sensitive area), and averts a potentially dangerous situation,” as the team members described their system.

The team members said their on-board unit consists of a Raspberry Pi computer, GPS chip, and 3G communication module. It interfaces with the existing drone flight controller to execute commands. By monitoring the location of the drone via satellite, the ASPECTS system determines its proximity to local No-Fly zones through a software algorithm executed on the Raspberry Pi.

According to the team, the major features of this system include a national database of airport coordinates, a notification system, and an autopilot to direct UAVs away from critical airspaces.

As the introduction to the ASPECTS team’s Senior Design Project report explained, “Drone use has increased dramatically in recent years as the hobby becomes more popular. The number of Certificates of Allowance permitting the flight of unmanned aerial vehicles in civil airspace grew from 146 in 2009 to 545 in 2013. These numbers are of course in addition to the recreational drones available for public purchase.”

Furthermore, according to a report by USA Today in October 2015, “An examination of 891 drone sightings reported to the Federal Aviation Administration over a 17-month period found more than half flew too close to an airport.”

The team members noted that “On top of these sightings, which clearly present a very real danger to the safety of aircraft leaving and entering airports, there has been a variety of instances that nearly had catastrophic consequences.”

According to BBC news on April 17th, 2016, “The British Airways flight from Geneva, with 132 passengers and five crew on board, was hit [by a drone] as it approached the London airport at 12:50 BST on Sunday. No debris has been found and police have asked for anyone who finds drone parts in the Richmond area to come forward...After safely landing the plane, the pilot reported the object had struck the front of the Airbus A320.”

As the Senior Design Project report said, “With this trend comes a new challenge: defining regulations that will lower the risk of incursions with passenger and commercial planes, and ensuring safe practices among vehicles sharing the airspace. One way this is implemented is by establishing restricted areas where drones cannot legally fly.”

The FAA currently enforces a five-mile No-Fly Zone around all major airports, military bases, national parks, and other sensitive landmarks in the U.S., but very often those perimeters are breached by unmanned aircraft, which thus pose a threat to safety and security.

As explained in the team’s report, this issue has gained the attention of the FAA, the United States Department of Transportation, and several key Senate members, who recently proposed that all consumer drones must feature geofencing capabilities in the future. Geofencing is a way of creating virtual geographical boundaries which are defined by a central GPS coordinate with a specified radius around that point. The idea of geofencing expands on the basis for other existing technologies such as invisible fences for dogs.

This concept can be paired with specified hardware and software components to simulate a literal fence to keep drones out of airspaces where they might conceivably collide with commercial planes and other manned air vehicles, resulting in the loss of life and property. (July 2016)