Maneuvering airplanes around a runway is a delicate process, and sometimes wingtips collide. When that happens, planes suffer costly damage and safety is compromised. A reliable and cost-effective solution has long vexed the Federal Aviation Administration.
Now a team of University of Rhode Island engineering students holds an answer, which last month won first place in a national FAA competition.
The 5-pound device temporarily attaches to the wingtip with suction cups and monitors the airport tarmac area using ultrasonic sensors as a vehicle tows the aircraft to the runway. When the plane approaches a nearby object, the system emits lights and sounds to warn of a potential collision. As the wingtip comes closer to the object, the LED lights change color and the beeping tone becomes faster. Easy to use and affordable – each costs about $800 – the device is ideal for general aviation aircraft.
Five students -- Christopher Clark of Narragansett, Kyle DellaGrotta of Cranston, Lawrence Higgins of Portsmouth, David Powers of Cumberland, and Ronald Wheeler of Aurora, Ohio -- invented the device during their senior design capstone course that concluded in May. The yearlong course requires students to solve a real-world problem with a viable product. The students entered the FAA competition that sought improvements in airport operations. The team studied the topic, sought advice from officials at the Rhode Island Airport Corp., built a prototype and tested it at Quonset State Airport.
“Rather than just do work on campus, we were able to go out there, put this on a plane and watch it in action,” said Higgins. “That definitely made it better.”
The team will travel to Washington, D.C., later this month to present their invention to FAA officials. Their concept – coined The Wingman – is already turning heads.
When the team exhibited on campus in May, two members of the Rhode Island Air National Guard inspected the device, with Master Sgt. Chad Gurnon labeling it “an awesome idea” that would improve safety at little cost. A panel of FAA officials and industry experts later concurred and awarded the project first place in the airport management and planning category. It was the first time URI garnered the top spot. During the last four years, URI teams placed second and third in the competition administered by the Virginia Space Grant Consortium.
“The panel thought The Wingman had market potential, that it was cost conscious, and that it addressed an issue that airports had with safety,” consortium Director Mary Sandy said. “They also liked that the students designed it, built it and tested it.”
The idea almost didn’t fly. When the group reviewed the FAA competition, it identified a litany of airport operations issues besides wingtip collisions. Wheeler, who served in the R.I. Air National Guard as a C-130 loadmaster, lobbied for the wingtip issue. His duties had showed him the dangers of wingtip collisions.
“It was more than a senior design project,” Wheeler said. “I had personal feelings about it. I was excited, and I tried to rub that motivation off on the team.”
As part of the capstone design sequence, the group proposed more than 150 solutions to their adviser, mechanical engineering Professor Bahram Nassersharif. Powers said the required process forced the group to explore the issue from every angle.
“It was a lot of solutions coming together,” he said. “We fixed the attachment problem one way, the detection problem in another way, and the audio problem in another way.”
The device is not the first to attract attention. Previous inventions from the capstone course have streamlined the manufacturing process at Toray Plastics in North Kingstown, improved toys made by Rhode Island-based Hasbro and helped other Ocean State companies.
“Many of the projects result in a product or a process that will go into implementation,” Nassersharif said. “This one I’m particularly excited about because it has the potential to create a product that can be used by many people.”