Why do some flights arrive early while others touch down hours late?

April 22, 2014

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One afternoon a year ago, Sergey Kozub, a software developer in the Russian city of Kursk, was scrolling through messages on the popular programming forum topcoder when he hit on a link to Kaggle. Kaggle, the world’s largest open community of data scientists, had just partnered with GE and Alaska Airlines and challenged the public to come up with software that would reduce flight delays and make airlines more efficient and profitable.

Kozub spent the next several months writing algorithms and crunching data after work to come up with a solution. Today, he became one of the winners of the second leg of the Industrial Internet Flight Quest contest. “It was a very challenging competition,” Kozub says. “In the end, the difference between the scores of the top competitors was about five basis points.” In other words, miniscule.

Commercial airlines spend an estimated $22 billion annually managing flight plan efficiency. “Flight plans don’t always stick to a schedule,” says John Gough, director for Fuel and Carbon Solutions at GE Aviation. “There are gate conflicts, flight delays and unexpected fuel consumption. All these factors add up quickly.”

GE estimates that if every scheduled flight worldwide was able to reduce the distance it flew by only 10 miles, airlines could potentially cut annual fuel consumption by 360 million gallons and save the industry over $3 billion each year.

Gough says that the Flight Quest challenge, which received 6,800 submissions from 58 countries, is looking for an algorithm that could provide real-time, flight plan intelligence to the pilots “so they can make smarter decisions in the cockpit.”

Kozub, who won the second prize in the second phase of Flight Quest and $50,000, built a flight optimization model using dynamic programming to find a rough estimate of a flight route between airports and then make it more efficient. “It’s a custom-made solution,” he says. “The general approaches are well known, but the actual implementation requires a lot of domain-specific knowledge and attention to detail.”

His algorithms analyzed weather data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, airport ground conditions and also flight statistics.

The winners of the second stage of the Flight Quest challenge will share $250,000 – the same amount set aside for the first stage winners, who were announced last year. (Kozub finished fourth during the first stage. He is the only contestant to win a prize in both legs.)

Kozub says that “there was some element of luck to winning” since the final results were very tight. “The chance of spending a full month without a reward was very high,” he says.

GE and NineSigma also announced three winners of another open innovation challenge called the 3D Printing Production Quest. They came up with the best applications of additive manufacturing methods to make parts from a class of dense metals like Niobium and Molybdenum, which are highly resistant to heat and wear.

These so-called refractory metals are used in medical X-ray systems and in tubes that generate X-rays. The metals very effectively block X-rays without the environmental and health hazards associated with lead. Each winner of this challenge will receive $50,000.