Magnetic Field Sensors Could Help Halt Runway Crashes

European engineers harness Earth's magnetic field to improve airport safety

2 min read

Air-traffic control is a ­complex and high-stress business. Mistakes are not allowed. And it’s not ­limited to directing planes for takeoff and landing—a job that’s been ­memorably described as three-dimensional chess. It also includes keeping track of where planes are on the ground. According to safety watchdog Eurocontrol, in 2005 alone there were 600 occasions when people, cars, or planes crossed Europe’s airport taxiways when they shouldn’t have. In fact, the most deadly airline ­accident ever happened on the ground: in 1977, two 747 jumbo jets collided in the Canary Islands, killing 583 people.

Most big airports have expensive ground-radar systems to keep track of where the hundreds of moving planes are on the sprawling tarmacs. But ground radar sometimes reflects off buildings and terminals, leaving small gaps in coverage. Smaller airports like the one in Thessaloníki, Greece, can’t afford ground radar. Such blind spots on the ground at airports large and small have prompted European researchers to explore the use of fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field to better pinpoint where planes are on busy taxiways. The results, researchers say, show that using US $150 sensors can fill in the blind spots.

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Top Tech 2022: A Special Report

Preview two dozen exciting technical developments that are in the pipeline for the coming year

1 min read
Photo of the lower part of a rocket in an engineering bay.

NASA’s Space Launch System will carry Orion to the moon.

Frank Michaux/NASA

At the start of each year, IEEE Spectrum attempts to predict the future. It can be tricky, but we do our best, filling the January issue with a couple of dozen reports, short and long, about developments the editors expect to make news in the coming year.

This isn’t hard to do when the project has been in the works for a long time and is progressing on schedule—the coming first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System, for example. For other stories, we must go farther out on a limb. A case in point: the description of a hardware wallet for Bitcoin that the company formerly known as Square (which recently changed its name to Block) is developing but won’t officially comment on. One thing we can predict with confidence, though, is that Spectrum readers, familiar with the vicissitudes of technical development work, will understand if some of these projects don’t, in fact, pan out. That’s still okay.

Engineering, like life, is as much about the journey as the destination.

See all stories from our Top Tech 2022 Special Report

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