Jul 092011
This picture from a NASA study on wingtip vort...

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Proponents of flying cars like to state how much less likely collisions would be up in the air, where everyone wouldn’t be traveling on the same level, yet mid-air collisions between aircraft do already occur.

Although certainly not as common as automobile collisions, approximately 10 to 12 aircraft do fly into each other every year, with many more reporting near-misses. This has led to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) mandating that by 2020, all commercial aircraft (and small aircraft flying near airports) must be equipped with a GPS tracking system, which would give more accurate information on their location than is provided by ground-based radar. Scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has been tasked with creating an algorithm, that would use that GPS data to keep the planes out of each other’s way.

Using six month’s worth of data from San Francisco-area airports, a team led by Maxime Gariel, a postdoc in MIT’s International Center for Air Transportation, created a computer system that places virtual horizontal hockey puck-shaped volumes of airspace around aircraft. These pucks represent where an aircraft is likely to go. If the edges of two pucks overlap, the pilots are warned that they’re getting too close to one another.

The size of the pucks vary, according to how risky the situation is. Two planes flying parallel in the same direction, for instance, will have relatively small pucks. Once one or both of those planes start to move toward the other, however, their pucks will get larger, in order to provide a warning that much sooner.

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