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Conflict Avoidance in Nature:

Application for the Future of the National Airspace System

Tony Dziepak
March 2003


In nature, there are many examples of large groups of animals traveling in large, complex patterns: schools of fish and penguins, herds of mammals, flocks of birds, swarms of insects, and groups of bats, for instance. What communication, sensory information, and feedback mechanisms do these creatures use to avoid collisions in these large, crowded movements? How do these mechanisms compare to that of the national airspace system?

Most animals rely heavily on their own sensory information, and is thus a "pull" of information. A pull is most reliable because it does not depend upon on the other objects sending out ("pushing") a beacon or communication in order to be avoided. For example, bats use echolocation, analogous to radar, to detect objects in the sky. However, some animals may push an auditory signal if they sense a collision is iminent.

In many cases, animals rely on external references for navigation. Migratory birds and homing pigeons use the earth's magnetic field as a reference, and honeybees use the position of the sun. However, none of these creatures use an external reference for collision avoidance.

In contrast, the air traffic controllers take responsibility for collision avoidance under instrument flight rules. Perhaps the future of the national airspace system is to rely less heavily on ground-based references and more heavily on onboard sensors.

Can we learn from nature to develop a more efficient and more reliable means of collision avoidance? What does the future look like?

For example, the future might be a "virtual visual flight rules" (VVFR), where sensory instruments and onboard computers extend the ability of pilots to avoid conflict. Pilots may have all of the tools to avoid conflict onboard and take responsibility, not relying on the air traffic controllers.

VVFR could be made "smart" if the objects to be avoided could push their future intentions. This would add an additional layer of efficiency to the system.

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