Students Develop Algorithm to Safely Land Airplanes with Engine Failure

December 17, 2019
By: Jennifer Frey

In 2009, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger miraculously glided his Airbus 320 with 155 passengers and crew to safety on the Hudson River after both engines were disabled by a flock of birds. And just this past summer, a general aviation aircraft experienced a fuel-supply-induced engine cutoff, making an emergency landing on a Washington highway.

The Technion student team with the mentors: O. Freund, A. Yarosinski. K. Kohai, Professor Naum Shimkin, H. & D. Straussman and Dr. Aharon Bar-Gill.

Engine cutoff, caused by fuel leaks, engine malfunction, or improper aircraft maintenance, is a recurring threat in aviation. And not all pilots are as skillful or as lucky as “Sully.” Such events, coupled with adverse weather and terrain-induced obstacles, may endanger passengers and crew. These life-threatening incidents have motivated Technion researchers to find a solution.

A team of students led by Professor Naum Shimkin, dean of the Viterbi Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Dr. Aharon Bar-Gill, along with aerospace engineering Professor Joseph Ben-Asher, has developed — and successfully tested — software that not only comes to the aid of pilots in distress, but could head off a disaster in the making.

They developed an algorithm that calculates and periodically rechecks a plane’s globally-optimal trajectory in terms of minimal altitude loss. Following the trajectory of a plane in trouble, the algorithm selects a safe landing strip, accounting for descent-generated terrain obstacles, crosswinds, and other factors.

“Since we are aiming to aid a pilot under immense stress, it is imperative to validate the algorithm in actual flights,” said members of the team.

So the students ran a simulation, designing a self-contained experimental setup with real-time estimation of wind intensity and direction. The simulation used a Cessna 172 four-seat engine aircraft, assuming engine failure west of Mount Tabor in Israel’s Galilee region. The modeling allowed the pilot to use cues on screen to find the best landing strip, track his trajectory, and circumvent the mountain, landing safely just east of Mount Tabor.

“We have thus validated our concept in-flight, as a real-time algorithm for the tracking of the globally-optimal trajectory by the pilot,” said team members. “This real-time globally-optimal algorithm, developed by the Technion research team, can be readily adopted in general aircraft cockpits as well as for UAVs.”

The research was partially supported by the Israeli Ministry of Defense.

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