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System Locates Passengers Who Contaminate Airline Cabins

Researchers at Purdue University have developed a system that uses mathematical models and sensors to locate passengers releasing hazardous materials or pathogens inside airline cabins. The system can track a substance to an area the size of a single seat. The technique could enable officials to identify passengers responsible for the unintentional release of germs, such as contagious viruses, or the intentional release

According to Qingyan Chen, professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue, “The goal is to be able to track the source if a person released a biological agent, such as anthrax, or inadvertently released a pathogen such as pandemic flu by sneezing, for example.” The research is supported by the Air Transportation Center of Excellence for Airline Cabin Environment Research, established by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

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Qingyan Chen describes the workings of his Purdue lab, which recreates the passenger compartment of a commercial airliner, complete with rows of seating. The research aims to develop a system that uses mathematical models and sensors to locate passengers releasing hazardous materials or pathogens inside airline cabins. (Purdue News Service photo/David Umberger)
The center’s research focuses on developing mathematical models for software that will be needed to operate such a system and learning how to precisely place several sensors to accurately trace hazardous airborne materials back to the source. The technique, called “inverse simulation,” analyzes how a material disperses throughout the cabin and then runs the dispersion in reverse to find its origin. Sensors track the airflow pattern and collect data related to factors such as temperature, velocity, and concentration of gases and particles in the air.

Chen has recreated a commercial airliner’s passenger compartment at Purdue’s Ray W. Herrick Laboratories. The lab is equipped with three sensors and recreates the exhalation and body heat of passengers and an airliner’s “linear diffuser” environmental control system, which supplies fresh and recirculated air for passengers. Boxy devices located on several seats reproduce body heat, and each has a tube that expels a gas to simulate passengers exhaling. Using three sensors, the Purdue researchers showed that the method could track a substance to within about two feet of its origin in an airline cabin. The same principle could be applied to systems designed for other environments, such as office buildings.

For more information, visit //news.uns.purdue.edu/x/2007a/070522ChenInverse.html.