The spate of near collisions at U.S. airports this year has energized discussions in the industry over technical and human factors solutions. An alert system rolled out so far to only 20 airports in the U.S. could point the way. Keith Button tells the story.

Two planes carrying a combined 308 people were on the same runway in Queens, New York, as one of them started to take off. In Austin, Texas, a cargo plane came within 30 meters of landing on an airliner taking off from the same runway. In Boston, a business jet taking off nearly collided with a passenger jet landing on an intersecting runway. In Burbank, California, a regional jet aborted its landing to avoid another passenger plane taking off from the same runway. At Reagan National in Virginia, a regional jet crossed a runway in front of an airliner that had started to take off.

None of these incidents between January and March caused deaths or injuries, but history makes clear that any runway incursion — in FAA’s terms, an “incorrect presence” on a runway — must be taken seriously. The deadliest aviation accident in history occurred in 1977 in the Canary Islands when a Boeing 747 taking off collided with another 747 taxiing on the same runway, killing 583 passengers and crew members. In response to the recent incursions, FAA called an emergency “safety summit” of aviation safety experts in March to discuss the issue. Later, the agency issued an “aviation safety call to action” urging “vigilance and attention” to runway incursion risks. FAA also called on the aerospace industry to identify technologies that could improve runway surveillance and be deployed to all airports that have air traffic controllers.

Part of the answer may lie with runway safety technology developed about a decade ago. These heavily networked Runway Status Lights are now installed at 20 of the busiest airports in the U.S. Three of the five airports where the recent incidents occurred do not have them. In Boston, the lights were installed, but FAA said it appears the pilots ignored the lights and commands from air traffic controllers. In Queens, where the lights were also installed, the National Transportation Safety Board did not reference the lights but said the pilots ignored air traffic controllers.

The lights are embedded in the pavement of runway intersections and takeoff points and are governed by algorithms and networks of surveillance radars. Next, developers want to enhance the technology to anticipate a pilot’s intent, for example. The goal would be to give FAA confidence to extend the technology to the other 500 major U.S. airports.

When researchers at MIT Lincoln Laboratory outside Boston began developing the technology in the early 2000s, the idea was to track airplanes on the ground and automatically trigger the lights to turn red without any involvement from air traffic controllers, says James Kuchar, who led the Runway Status Lights project and now oversees Lincoln Lab’s transportation technology programs. The lights would not supersede commands from air traffic controllers, who have the authority to clear planes for crossing, entering or departing a runway.