Aviation experts receive NASA award for research to prevent airline accidents

Lance Sherry, an associate professor in the Department of Systems Engineering and Operations Research, worked with a team to come up with a new solution to reduce airline accidents.

Mason Engineering researchers were part of a team that received a prestigious award from NASA for their work on preventing airline accidents.

Experts from several universities and aerospace companies developed solutions to prevent airline accidents. The Mason researchers used a unique approach that analyzed detailed data on loss-of-control accidents involving modern glass cockpit airliners over the past 30 years.

The cockpit display they developed keeps track of the configuration of the switches to alert the flight crew when an inappropriate configuration exists, especially configurations in specific phases of flight that have appeared in previous accident scenarios, says principal investigator Lance Sherry, an associate professor in the Department of Systems Engineering and Operations Research (SEOR).

Sherry and students Oleksandra (Sasha) Snisarevska-Donnelly and Houda Kourdali were part of the team that received the 2020 NASA Langley Team Honor Award for their work.

Overall, airline accidents are relatively rare, Sherry says. “In the United States, there are approximately 0.2 deaths per 10 billion passenger-miles. This is 750 times better than driving a car.”

But in a continuing effort to improve airline safety, NASA’s aeronautics programs fund research to investigate the causes of accidents and design solutions to prevent these accidents.

Each research team on the NASA project took a different approach, Sherry says. The Mason team studied detailed data from airline accidents.

 “By taking a step back and looking at the big picture across many accidents we began to see patterns in the accident scenarios,” says Snisarevska-Donnelly, a PhD student and graduate research assistant. “Our solution is designed to identify the accident-prone scenarios before they emerge and lead to an accident.”

Kourdali, a former Systems Engineering student and now a researcher at the MITRE corporation, says that one of the patterns that emerged has to do with the evolution of technology in the cockpit.  

“The flight control system in the modern airliner has been enhanced in stages. Think of it as a stack of functions. Each layer of functions is built on the previous layer. To give the pilot flexibility each layer can be turned on or off.”

You can see the problem, Kourdali says. "There are four switches, so the flight control functions can be configured in 16 different ways. That is too much for a human operator to manage, especially when the switches can turn themselves on or off."

The display is not only useful in the cockpit but has been proposed for pilot training. “The underlying predictive data analytics developed for this project has potential applications in many other domains, such as health care, energy, and transportation,” says Sherry.

“This was a great project to be part of," he says. “The development and simulator testing required a large cohort of researchers. We were blessed to work in collaboration with an outstanding team at NASA, as well as the University of Iowa and San Jose State University.”

John Shortle, SEOR chair, says, “We are very proud of our students and faculty. This is another example of the creativity and innovation at Mason.”