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Blog: Meet Kyle Smith: USAF Lieutenant, STEM Student, Aviation Problem-Solver

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I have said over and over again that although we must invest more in America's infrastructure, spending more money is not enough to restore our nation's transportation system to the level of safety and efficiency our economic vitality requires. We also need some good, old-fashioned American inventiveness so we can use our resources more effectively.

The Secretary's RAISE Award, an aviation innovation challenge, asks the best and brightest minds from American high schools, colleges, and universities to help us manage our limited airspace more safely and efficiently, and this year's winning submission from USAF Lieutenant Kyle Smith promises to do exactly that.

In fact, the airborne collision avoidance system Lt. Smith proposed last year while he was a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is so promising, it's already being put through its paces at the Federal Aviation Administration's Hughes Technical Center.

One of the air traffic challenges we face occurs when two aircraft are approaching parallel airport runways. The current traffic alert and collision avoidance system (TCAS) to keep them safely separated limits our ability to take greatest advantage of the extra capacity these runways offer. The FAA's proposed NextGen ACAS X approach offers better performance than TCAS, but Lt. Smith's ACAS Xo approach to Closely Spaced Parallel Operations tunes the FAA's ACAS X to further reduce separation while also maintaining safety.

The current TCAS system, which has been very effective, is not very flexible, so adapting the system to new flight scenarios is cumbersome. TCAS also has a "nuisance alert" rate of 35 percent; that means more than one in three alerts potentially issued to pilots are false. So under conditions--such as fog--likely to result in false alerts that pilots can't trust, we shut down one of the parallel runways instead. As you can imagine, that is a schedule disruption that can lead to delays in takeoffs and landings.

"It's a fine balance between safety and efficiency," Smith explained. "At the same time, you want a system not overly sensitive, so pilots can trust it."

Manual simulations for how and when pilots should be alerted under different scenarios can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days. Smith's ACAS Xo automates that process to, as he puts it, "Let the system learn from itself."

I am pleased that I got the opportunity to meet Kyle last Friday and present his award. When we evaluated the submissions for the RAISE award, his research into collision avoidance procedures stood out, and it's exciting to know we could potentially implement his work to improve commercial aviation safety and efficiency.

We created the RAISE award to encourage students to think creatively and develop innovative solutions to aviation challenges. With this year's winning submission, Lt. Smith has certainly done that, but I think he's done something more--he has shown that the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) academic communities in American schools are capable of producing practical solutions to real-world problems.

One man, one idea, and millions of air travelers who could benefit. I hope that this RAISE success story will inspire STEM students across the country for next year's challenge!

Having finished up at MIT, Kyle has returned to US Air Force flight school to continue his pilot training. As he said the other day, "I'll probably be flying with the ACAS X system in 10 to 15 years."

Please join me in commending Kyle for his service and wishing him the best of luck in the future.


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