System engineering students win award for vertiport design


Toavina Ratolojanahary, a senior systems engineering student didn’t know what a vertiport was until his first class in her senior design capstone course. Now he and his team know that a vertiport is an airport designed for aircraft that take off and land vertically.

The team of systems engineering students won first place in the fourth annual Andrew P. Sage Memorial Capstone Design Competition (SMDC-21) held in Fairfax on April 26, 2021. The project, “Design of a Vertiport Traffic Flow Management System,” developed an innovative algorithm to coordinate traffic at a vertiport.

“To overcome road congestion, innovative companies such as Uber and Lilium, are developing an Urban Air Transportation System that flies commuters in metropolitan areas over the rush hour traffic. For example, first-class passengers arriving at Dulles Airport may want to get to their meetings on Capitol Hill, Tysons Corner, or Bethesda in less than 20 minutes,” says Ratolojanahary. "Using new battery-powered helicopters, they would fly from the airport to a landing pad at a vertiport in the urban area.”

“As you would imagine, the vertiport in an urban area is space-constrained but must handle a large volume of traffic,” says system engineering student Betelhem Kebede. “For this reason, the bottleneck in the air traffic flow will be on the ground at the vertiport, not in the air.”

The student team developed an agent-based simulation of traffic at a vertiport.

“The simulation allowed us to test out thousands of configurations to handle all plausible scenarios such as when a helicopter is low on battery and requests an emergency landing,” says systems engineering student Furat Allawi. “There are also cases when a vehicle doesn’t depart on schedule or is stuck on the taxiway. You wouldn’t believe all the things that could happen in such as small space.”

“This was a great project,” says team leader Parul Chabbra. “We spent a lot of time interviewing the stakeholders to understand their points of view and their requirements. Once we had the simulation results we cycled back and reviewed the proposed design with the stakeholders. That was probably the most gratifying part of the project.”

“Participating in the design competitions was also an amazing experience,” says Chabbra. “Teams from all over the county compete. The range of the projects addressed and the ingenuity was inspiring. That made winning the first place even more rewarding.”

“The awards in the competition is evidence of the quality of the systems engineering program here at Mason,” says John Shortle, department chair of systems engineering and operations research. “We challenge the students with a rigorous academic program to prepare them for the real world. Watching them succeed on their capstone courses is very fulfilling.”