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Students tackle airport challenges

By : Eric Coker

William Ziegler knew he had found the perfect project for computer science students taking his senior seminar course when he read about the National Federal Aviation Administration Design Competition for universities and colleges.

“I thought, ‘We’ve got to do this, but I don’t have enough knowledge about the topic to guide the students,’” said Ziegler, associate professor of computer science and faculty master of Newing College.

“I just made a cold call to Carl Beardsley (commissioner of aviation at the Greater Binghamton Airport). He called me back and said he already lined up Chad (Nixon) and said, ‘We’re in.’”

The result is a collaboration between Ziegler, 48 computer science students, the Greater Binghamton Airport and local engineering company McFarland-Johnson to develop projects that could help the aviation industry.

“The things that the students are coming up with are practical solutions to problems that hundreds of airlines are facing,” said Nixon, aviation director for McFarland-Johnson.

The students, split into two groups, are focusing on airport operation/maintenance challenges and airport environmental interactions challenges. The first group is developing a way to remove snow and ice from airport aprons by using geothermal heat, while the second team is stressing ways to recycle aircraft de-icing fluids.

“We’re looking at timely problems in the industry,” Beardsley said. “If they can come up with a solution that’s implementable, we’re all for that. If we have a way that we can improve our operation at Binghamton and the aviation industry can also improve, then that’s a wonderful benefit for being involved in this.”

Beardsley and Nixon met with Ziegler and the students in the Newing College Discovery Center on March 6 to discuss the status of the projects.

Nixon reviewed diagrams with the geothermal group that showed where and how trenching would take place at the Greater Binghamton Airport. When the discussion moved off track, Nixon guided the students back to basics.

“The simpler it is, the more easily understood it will be to more airports,” he said of the proposal.

Challenges for the de-icing team included finding a way to keep costs low, determining the number of airports that could be helped by the recycling system and determining the boiling point for glycol, which is used to de-ice planes.

“If this wasn’t a challenge, someone else would’ve done it by now,” Nixon told the students.

Both teams must submit rough project drafts this week. The final design document is due to the FAA by April 17; each proposal must be 70 pages. Winning entries receive a cash prize and a chance to present their research to a broader audience.

“We’re in new territory,” Ziegler said. “There’s a lot of work to do. We’re on a tight schedule.

“I’ve looked at past entries and I feel really good that we’re going to finish in the top three. I didn’t do this for the competition, as much as the experience for the students. But as I keep looking at this, I think we can pull it off.”

Ziegler and students involved in the projects agree that a recent tour of the Greater Binghamton Airport was instrumental in their progress.

“It helped get me motivated,” Justin Flechsig said. “It’s one thing to have someone put a fake project in front of you. But going there, seeing everything and knowing that your research could be used helps you gain a sense of perspective.”

“We don’t often get to have field trips,” Nicole Hofmann with a laugh. “It was nice. We got to go out and then sit around a table throwing out ideas. Chad was up there with a dry erase board. We brainstormed. That’s always invigorating and exciting.”

Hofmann and Flechsig said they had initial reservations, as the project seemed better suited to engineering students. But they have found it to be an beneficial experience, as

Ziegler has stressed working together, problem solving, improving written and verbal communication and understanding the ethical considerations of their decisions.

Both Ziegler and Beardsley have also stressed the advantages of a public-private collaboration.

“We’re enjoying this as much as Bill and the students,” Beardsley said. “It’s good for the community and we love working with Binghamton University. Everybody wins.”

Ziegler said: “To work with a private engineering company, a county agency and a state agency in Binghamton University for a federal agency competition, it just doesn’t get better than that.”

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Last Updated: 10/14/08