Embry-Riddle leads FAA group developing new lighting system for remote airports


DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – One of the leading causes of general-aviation fatal accidents is incorrect aircraft maneuvering and landing, especially during evening and night-time hours, according to researchers at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. This is especially critical in remote locations that often depend on air transportation as the only means to handle medical and disaster-related emergencies.

To combat the problem, Embry-Riddle researchers and their partners from the University of Alaska-Anchorage (UAA), the University of North Dakota and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) are working for the FAA Center of Excellence for General Aviation to improve night-time safety at small general aviation airports with an innovative, low-cost, and highly-portable Remote Airport Light System (RALS) that uses LED lights and retro-reflective markers.

“The lighting system developed by the research team improves the ability of the pilot to identify the airfield, orient the aircraft to landing, and to land safely,” said Dr. Dan Macchiarella, associate professor of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle’s College of Aviation. “This is a real boon to small, rural airports where pilots are currently landing with no lighting system at all or with the unreliable guidance of improvised systems like smudge pots.”

The need is especially great in Alaska and internationally, he said, where remote airfields that don’t have access to an electrical grid require alternative solutions for the safe landing of aircraft bearing emergency medical and disaster-relief workers and supplies.”

Macchiarella recently led Embry-Riddle researchers and pilots in a successful test of the new system, temporarily installed at Massey Ranch Airpark in Edgewater, Fla., which included the landing of aircraft guided by RALS. The evaluation was observed by UAA, RPI and FAA officials. The next step is installation of the system in Alaska for continued night-time testing through December.

In addition, the researchers plan to make presentations to the US Department of Transportation, the Airport Lighting Consortium, the Illuminating Engineering Society and professional aviation groups.

In the RALS setup, typical edge lights are replaced with reflective panels, similar to the technology on road signs, to assist the pilot in safely landing the aircraft. This kind of marker requires no power and is more brightly visible when lit by an airplane’s landing lights. The system uses low-powered LED lights to mark the corners of the landing strip and flash in synchronization with Global Positioning System (GPS) time to give pilots improved cues for airfield identification and landing.

The RALS idea originated with the FAA Center of Excellence for General Aviation, a research consortium of universities, corporations, and government agencies led by Embry-Riddle. The consortium addresses the needs of general aviation, defined as all aviation except military and commercial enterprises. Embry-Riddle, working with other team members, also is developing guidelines to advise remote airport operators how to use this system.

“In the present economy, airports are looking for ways to cut costs while still maintaining high safety standards,” said Dr. Chris Grant, director of Embry-Riddle’s research team and associate dean of the College of Engineering. “Considering that a standard FAA-approved lighting system can cost anywhere from $100,000 to $1 million, depending on the number of runways and taxiways, our test system is a bargain at only $3,000.”

According to Grant, the highly reliable LED lights have a lifetime of about 25,000 to 30,000 hours, last 10 to 20 times longer than the incandescent bulbs typically used, and reduce energy consumption by about two-thirds.