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Student Team Named as Finalists in FAA Competition

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

A team of University of Texas at Arlington students has been named one of three finalists in the Federal Aviation Administration’s Smart Airport Challenge. UTA will make its final presentation in May in Atlantic City, N.J., against teams from Purdue University and the University of North Dakota.

FAA Challenge TeamThis year’s competition focused on “smart” airports and asked teams to design, build and test technology that has the ability to improve travelers’ transportation experiences from home, in the airport, and on to their final destination. The UTA team chose to find a solution that will assist air travelers requiring special assistance. The team developed a mobile application, WheelTrip, that will allow users to primarily track their journey and flights, with added features for wheelchair users. In addition, the system will gather information on expected demand for wheelchair assistance and communicate that data to special assistance staffing agencies. By working with both users and the agencies in mind, the team’s aim is to increase the quality of service and minimize costs for staffing agencies, thereby improving the experience of users.

 “We chose a project that focused on passengers who use or need wheelchairs because there’s a need for better access, but also because it was a chance for us to stand out with a project that can really have an immediate impact for travelers,” said Nikolai Drigalenko, the team’s captain and a Master’s student in the Industrial, Manufacturing and Systems Engineering Department.

During the development process, the team spoke to several companies with contracts to serve wheelchair users at DFW International Airport and in Chicago to determine their processes for meeting passengers at their planes, as well as moving through security and concourses.

“It was a challenge to validate our idea, because we found out quickly that there are a bunch of different companies that serve airports. What may work for one could upset others, so we made sure to talk to people to identify potential issues,” Drigalenko said.

In addition to Drigalenko, team members are Shannon Abolmaali and Isabella Reyna from the Industrial, Manufacturing and Systems Engineering Department; Justine Batongmalaki from the Computer Science and Engineering Department; Elio Salloum from the Civil Engineering Department; and Joanna Glover from the School of Social Work. They are working with faculty advisor Jay Rosenberger and industry mentors Gloria Bender, Managing Principal at TranSolutions, an aviation operations consulting company, and Willie Hernandez, founder of Per4Max, which makes wheelchairs for active disabled individuals.

“I’m proud of this team. They’ve really embraced the idea of multi-disciplinary collaboration, and they’ve been all-in on this competition since the beginning. They’ve really shown great maturity and approached the problem seriously, and this result shows that their hard work has paid off,” said Rosenberger, a professor in the Industrial, Manufacturing and Systems Engineering Department.

Bender pointed to the team’s selection as a finalist as evidence that UTA continues to make a name for itself in the aviation realm.

“I think this shows that the FAA now knows what great students and faculty we have at UTA. What our team did is pretty phenomenal – Purdue and North Dakota are highly respected in the aviation field,” Bender said.

“As I’ve mentored the team, I’ve been straight with them. They’ve listened and synthesized and adjusted their ideas. They’ve been really creative and worked very, very hard to get their project to this point.”

The Federal Aviation Administration is sponsoring the FAA Challenge: Smart Airport Student Competition to recognize students with the ability to demonstrate innovative thinking focused on improving the efficiency and effectiveness of smart technology in and around the airport environment while enhancing the overall traveling experience. The FAA is using this competition to stimulate and advance innovation in aviation research and develop a career pipeline to fill current and projected shortages via partnerships with academia and industry. The intent is to encourage students at accredited United States-based colleges and universities to think creatively in developing solutions to transportation technology challenges while addressing the human factors aspects of a traveler’s experience, and to share those innovations with the broader community.