Shortly after arriving at Fairfield University in September, Ryan Toner ’21 hopped aboard a plane to St. Petersburg, Fla. to present a peer-reviewed paper at the 36th annual Digital Avionics Systems Conference (DASC).
“I spent much of my day writing code at Fairfield locked away in a windowless room, and at night I kept vigil at the computer screen hunting down pesky bugs."
— Ryan Toner '21
The paper he co-authored, “Aircraft Conflict Resolution Cataloguer,” was the culmination of a year-long senior design project. Like his collaborators, Ryan had spent his senior year working on a task delegated by the Federal Aviation Administration as part of a CRDA, or Collaborative Research and Development Agreement. But, unlike his fellow team members, Ryan wasn’t a college senior—he was still in high school.
“By September, I was the only vestigial remnant of our group,” jokes Toner. The others—two electrical engineers, a software engineer, and a computer engineer—had left campus in May, after graduating from Fairfield’s School of Engineering.
How did Toner end up working as primary developer on a Fairfield University senior design project while still attending Wooster High School in Danbury, Conn.?
According to Adrian Rusu, PhD, chair of the Computer Science and Engineering Department, Toner first visited Fairfield University for an awards ceremony honoring the top STEM students from Connecticut high schools. After the event, co-sponsored by the School of Engineering and Sikorsky Aircraft, Dr. Rusu showed him around the campus and the School of Engineering facilities. “It was last fall,” recalls, Dr. Rusu, “and I was new at Fairfield and also discovering things myself. Ryan enjoyed the informal nature of the tour.”
Although new to Fairfield, Dr. Rusu had mentored high school students before. In fact, he was published in top engineering education venues about the topic. So when Toner later reached out to him to inquire about a possible independent study project, Dr. Rusu welcomed the chance to work with the high school senior, not realizing at the time how quickly Toner would progress from mentee to active contributor on the team.
“Ryan decided to enroll in Fairfield’s School of Engineering based on the very positive experience he had with us for the entire academic year,” noted Dr. Rusu.
About the project itself, Toner explained that the task assigned to the Fairfield team by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was “to devise an algorithm that could categorize maneuvers taken by aircrafts to avoid conflicts.” Conflicts, in aeronautic terms, are situations when an aircraft violates a minimum distance from another aircraft.
“In the beginning,” shared Toner, “we were utterly clueless because it felt like an overwhelming dataset.” But by their midterm visit to the FAA Technical Center in Atlantic City, N.J., the group had established a valid algorithm and Toner had written the team’s first trial code.
At the FAA facility, the Fairfield team was taken on a private laboratory tour to see NextGen technology in development. They also visited a panoramic replica of an air traffic control tower, complete with state-of-the-art systems, and flew an actual A320 flight simulator—which Toner successfully landed. Through these experiences, the Fairfield team realized the importance of their project.
Upon returning to Connecticut, bi-weekly collaborative meetings resumed on campus and the group continued to refine the quality and accuracy of the algorithm alongside the code. In the weeks leading up to their final trip to the Atlantic City FAA Technical Center in June, “I spent much of my day writing code at Fairfield locked away in a windowless room, and at night I kept vigil at the computer screen hunting down pesky bugs,” recalls Toner.
The hours of hard work and collaboration paid off at Fairfield’s final project presentation to the FAA, which went off without a hitch. The team’s innovative programming techniques were well-received, and their paper was not only accepted for DASC, “it was also peer-reviewed, meaning we are co-authored on a valid published paper,” explains Toner, who additionally earned a NASA CT Space travel grant and presented the research again in October at a conference in Hartford, Conn.
“Hopefully, our work will either be utilized by the FAA to supplement their existing technology, or will be incorporated into a larger part of their NextGen system,” speculates Toner.
As for what comes next for him personally, without hesitation Toner answers, “Should the FAA ever have another task, I’d be instantaneously receptive to hopping aboard again — I really enjoyed working with them.”