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Researchers developing system to determine most fuel-efficient aircraft climbs, descents

The proposed aircraft climb/descent optimisation process.

The proposed aircraft climb/descent optimisation process.

A consortium of researchers from the University of Malta’s Institute of Aerospace Technologies, QuAero and Malta Air Traffic Services are conducting research to develop a system to reduce aircraft fuel consumption during their climbs and descents in Maltese airspace.

The research is being undertaken as part of the Clean Flight 2 (CF2) project, which has a budget of €200,000 funded by Malta Council for Science and Technology (MCST). CF2 builds on the work carried out in the Clean Flight pro­ject, which ran from 2011 to 2013, which focused on reviewing air traffic structure and demonstrating potential benefits through simulation.

The potential benefits demonstrated by the latter project were that for aircraft climbs, a total of 105kg and 330kg per flight could be saved in fuel and CO2 emissions respectively. Meanwhile, for descents, a total of 290kg and 914kg per flight could be saved in fuel and CO2 emissions respectively.

The proposed system involves developing a novel software tool that will run on a computer in the air traffic control (ATC) operations room at Malta International Airport (MIA). The software tool would enable ATC officers to generate the optimal climb or descent for a single aircraft while checking for any possible conflicts with other traffic. Aircraft type and mass, weather conditions, route constraints and air traffic control constraints, would be taken into consideration in the proposed solution. Support for multi-aircraft optimisation is also being developed as part of an MSc thesis of Andrew Spiteri, a University of Malta engineering student actively involved in the project.

The software tool is currently being finalised in preparation for safety assurance certification. Flight trials involving actual aircraft are planned to take place in mid-2018, assessing all aspects of the system.

According to MIA’s annual statistical summary, in 2015 a total of 34,283 aircraft movements were recorded at the airport. The A320/B737 class of aircraft on average burns about 1.8 tonnes of fuel during a climb and 0.4 tonnes during a descent in 30 minutes of flight. This generates 5.7 tonnes and 1.2 tonnes of greenhouse gases (CO2) during a climb and a descent respectively, besides producing other emissions such as NOx. This results in an estimated total average emission of over 100,000 tonnes of CO2 per annum around the Maltese islands due to inbound and outbound flights.

Currently, there is no tool available for air traffic controllers to support or be sensitive to optimal climb and descent profiles. Meanwhile, aircraft systems utilise a cost index function that provides a rough balance between time of flight and fuel burnt, but provides no objective means to flight crews by which to fly efficiently.

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