Thursday, April 23, 2015

Safety first

by Mary Alexandra Agner

The Volpe Center's railroad simulator and its control room.

Anxious about air travel? Apprehensive about automobile recalls or the reliability of the next bus you board? Concerned your cruise ship may stall in the Gulf? The Volpe National Transportation Systems Center is working to make your transit options as safe as possible.

For the Volpe Center's first appearance in the Cambridge Science Festival on Tuesday, four staff members presented "transportation ideas worth sharing" about passenger safety during plane, bus, car, and ship travel. The event culminated in a tour—with hands-on participation—of the Center's plane, car, and rail engine simulators.

After director Robert Johns gave an overview focused on the history and mandate of the Center—"advancing transportation for the public good"—two speakers addressed aspects of the Federal Aviation Administration's Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen).

Kathryn Bernazzani discussed aircraft wake turbulence, explaining the concept of a wake vortex—a horizontal tornado off the plane's wing occurring during flight—with a clip from Die Hard 2. Getting more serious, she discussed the damaging effects of wake vortices from a leading plane on a trailing plane, and how the vortices persist after the plane has flown past. With NextGen's increase of closely-spaced parallel runways, the effects of one plane's wake on another pose more of a hazard. Bernazzani and her colleagues are working to mitigate that through updated requirements for safe following distances assigned to types of planes.

Ruth Hunter focused further on safety issues raised by the changes to existing airport, air traffic control, and airplane behavior outlined in NextGen, all designed to increase airport capacity. Hunter works with a multi-discipline, multi-agency review group looking at how common anomalies, such as sudden stops and missed departures and arrivals, are decreased by NextGen. The group's first step was to model existing anomalies. Hunter showed a number of real events, recorded from radar, GPS, and other data, which could be autonomously detected by software that would alert humans as the event occurred.

Brian Sumner's discussion of mobile apps moved the topic of safety from air travel to buses and automobiles. Sumner is part of an effort creating tablet and phone apps, free for public use, which provide safety ratings of cars, car recall notification, and safety records for drivers and vehicles from bus lines—all gathered from national agencies. Additionally, the team built an app to aid government employees tasked with inspecting trucks and buses on highways. Sumner reported over 10,000 downloads of this app for the Android operating system alone.

In the final presentation, Kam Chin shared ship-tracking software, bringing up a web page displaying over 50,000 ships based on their Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponder data. He showed how to overlay ship history onto a world map, and to access a ship's heading. The software is used by a number of U.S. government and foreign organizations to track events at sea.

Mary Alexandra Agner writes nonfiction, poetry, and stories in Somerville, MA.

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