Space technology aimed at reducing harmful carbon emissions at airports in Chicago, across US

ByChuck Goudie and Barb Markoff, Christine Tressel and Ross Weidner WLS logo
Thursday, November 4, 2021
NASA tech at Chicago airports aim to reduce harmful carbon emissions
That's why the Federal Aviation Administration is installing NASA software at airports in Chicago, and across the country, to cut carbon emissions.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Airlines emit about a billion tons of carbon dioxide every year. That alone makes aviation a substantial contributor to global warming, according to environmental engineers. That's why the Federal Aviation Administration is installing NASA software at airports in Chicago, and across the country, aimed at cutting down the time planes spend taxiing before take-off.

"I definitely think about the impact on the environment," said business traveler, Jason Taylor.

That's why NASA is coming to O'Hare and Midway in Chicago; with its space-age sounding ATD-2. But Airspace Technology Demonstration 2 is no science fiction. The technology trims time on the tarmac and means less fuel burned.

NASA and the FAA are trying to make flying more efficient by predicting airport traffic conditions and then deciphering favorable times for departing flights to push back from the gate.

"There's a direct correlation between carbon emissions and fuel burn, so not running engines and saving fuel, which saves money and saves that natural resource," said Shawn Engelland, an aerospace engineer and ATD project manager with NASA.

Taylor lives in Chicago and travels regularly out of O'Hare for business. He says he welcomes any program that makes flying more environmentally-friendly.

"If you think about two things being incremental, both the comfort as a traveler being improved slightly, less time at the gate, but also the environment being improved slightly by those things, it seems like a win win to me," Taylor told the I-Team.

The FAA is also integrating NASA scheduling software to help with efficiency. Instead of having planes physically line up when they are ready to leave, a virtual queue is created. Planes wait their turn at the gate, not on the tarmac. This also saves fuel.

"The longer the plane can be there without losing a spot in the line to takeoff, they're more likely are available to connect passengers," said Engelland.

An I-Team analysis of Eurocontrol data for the winter of 2019-2020, shows Chicago O'Hare has an average taxi out time of more than 22 minutes, which is among the longest taxi-times of 575 international airports.

The FAA has already tested ATD-2 in two airports and will eventually expand to 27. O'Hare and Midway are in that group. It's anticipated the program will save more than 7 million gallons of fuel and eliminate 75-thousand tons of carbon emissions every year.

"If aviation was treated as a country, it would be about the sixth largest emitter of carbon dioxide globally," said Dan Rutherford, an environmental engineer and director of aviation and marine programs at the International Council on Clean Transportation.

That's a problem for the climate and a pressing crisis for the airline industry. Programs such as ATD-2 will help but there are no quick solutions according to the dean of Lewis University's aviation program.

"The low hanging fruit is gone. We have to build teams to go after the problem to maximize efficiencies," said Dr. Christopher White, Dean of the College of Aviation, Science and Technology at Lewis University.

"Alternative fuels really is the way forward," said Dr. Ryan Phillips, Chair and Professor of Aviation & Transportation at Lewis University.

Some search engines now provide emissions data so travelers can choose a more efficient flight.

"A typical consumer flying in the U.S. could reduce the carbon dioxide emissions from their trip by an average of 20%, and up to 60% just by choosing a better ticket," said Rutherford.

Rutherford says aviation has a long way to go when it comes to sustainability but that programs such as NASA's are needed.

"It seems like a good program...but it does fall short of sort of transformational change that we need to decarbonize flying," said Rutherford.

"Everything helps, right? It's something that can be done right away," said NASA's Engelland.

"This is one way that fits our traveling lifestyle to be able to make a small impact. A lot of small impacts ultimately add up to a big one," said Taylor.

The Chicago Department of Aviation declined our request for an on camera interview but in a statement to the I-Team said, "The CDA enjoys a strong working partnerships with the FAA and we fully support initiatives that help reduce flight delays and aircraft emissions by improving aircraft taxi times at airports. We are excited to see how this new technology will benefit large hub airports across the country."