The Sky's the Limit

Is an end to the air-traffic bottleneck in sight?

If you think air travel is busy now, just wait. More airplanes are coming. So are unmanned aerial vehicles, supersonic business jets, and large transports.

If Steven Landry has his way, transition to next-generation air travel and super-density airports will be smooth, safe, and more automated, and there will be less noise and better air quality in the neighborhood.

It's a tall order, supported by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) funding and fellow researchers around the world. And it's a dream fulfilled for Landry.

"Even from a young age, I always wanted to do the job I'm doing now," says the native of Medway, Mass., who earned his bachelor's degree from Massachusetts' Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1987.

Next came an eight-year Air Force stint, where he flew more than 2,500 heavy-jet hours. "That was a formative influence," Landry says. "The training was rigorous. I had a lot of responsibility and was in charge of a crew on an airplane. I learned leadership skills and to work as part of a team."

Landry then earned his master's in aeronautics and astronautics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a doctorate at Georgia Institute of Technology, concentrating on human-machine systems. He also spent time as a research engineer at NASA's Ames Research Center in California.

He joined the Purdue faculty in 2005, drawn by what he calls "one of the best human-factors programs in the country" and "the chance for a lot of collaboration."

Interest: human factors, air transportation systems

With personal and professional goals of making an impact in human factors and air transportation systems engineering, Landry got to work.

"Human factors is a fairly new and open area of research," he says. "There are still a lot of things we have to learn, so it's challenging from that perspective. There are a lot of

contributions you could make."

On the transportation side, he likes the possibility for near-term and future implementation of next-generation systems. "When I was at NASA, I helped develop a decision-making tool that has been implemented. Having that kind of impact is very rewarding."

Landry advises four graduate students, co-advises two others, and teaches. He's program chair-elect for the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society's Human Performance Modeling Technical Group and book review editor for the International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction. And he's working on several NASA-funded projects.

Air-traffic pattern to reduce emissions

"Steve is a creative researcher who has an incisive perspective, because he brings a pilot's experience," says Joseph Pekny, interim head of Industrial Engineering. "Because of his unique skills and practical knowledge, Steve is helping provide the intellectual leadership and technology necessary for the next-generation air-traffic system, and he's engaged with practitioners who will bring it about."

A major focus for Landry is his role as principal investigator on the Transition to Super Density Operations project. "The idea is that you fly in, drop down a little, fly in, drop down—like a staircase," Landry explains. "We want planes to fly in pretty far and coast down. It's so much more efficient."

He's working on this with Gary Slater, professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at the University of Cincinnati, and Boeing personnel in Southern California and Spain.

The maneuver under study is called a "continuous descent approach" (CDA), Slater explains. "This maneuver results in major reductions in carbon emissions and noise pollution around the airport. The CDA gives these benefits by way of a rapid descent directly to the runway."

But it presents another problem, Slater says. "Our research is looking at how to do all this and maintain an orderly and safe traffic flow that the air-traffic controllers are comfortable with."

Simulations are the next step; they will occur at Boeing's research facility in Madrid, Spain. Sally Moore, with Human System Integration Technology, Phantom Works at The Boeing Co., says a simulator is being modified to combine aircraft scheduling logic, provided by Landry, with several Boeing airspace simulation tools.

"The combined Purdue/Boeing capabilities will allow testing of environmentally friendly and fuel-saving procedures to identify applicability at busy airports during peak traffic times," she says.

Easing air-traffic jams

In a separate project, Landry is helping find ways to automate some air-traffic-control functions.

"Right now, air-traffic control is a bottleneck," he says.

"An individual controller can handle about 12 planes.

NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration, and other government organizations are looking at building a system that would be capable of handling two to three times that." Landry is analyzing a NASA-developed system that would automate the separation assurance function—keeping planes far enough apart—now managed by air- traffic controllers.

"We're validating the algorithms through a modeling exercise, using a system safety method to ensure that agents—automated or human—have sufficient control," he says. "We've also developed algorithms to mitigate conflict like controllers do."

In the human factors area, Landry is a coinvestigator on a project looking at what happens to controllers' and pilots' roles and responsibilities, situation awareness, and workload when there is more automation. "We're running distributed simulations of these," he says. To conduct the simulations, Purdue is networked with NASA's Ames Research Center, California State/Long Beach, San Jose State University, and California State/Northridge.

"We'll all be online at the same time," he says.

Landry is also a coinvestigator on a project examining integration of different types of air transportation vehicles, such as large transports, unmanned vehicles, and supersonic business jets.

Astronaut next?

While it's nearly all work and no play for Landry, he enjoys golf now and then. And he's "little by little fixing up" his West Lafayette home.

He's also in the running for what he admits is a long shot. He's one of 400 on a list under scrutiny for the astronaut program. "I'm still in the mix," he says. "If I go, it would be a leave from Purdue."

-Kathy Mayer