Visual Guidance

Airports are busy places, and the signage, markings, and lighting on an airport’s surface are critically important to help pilots and ground vehicle operators know where they are at all times. FAA Airport Technology Research & Development (ATR) Branch researchers work behind-the-scenes, constantly evaluating new concepts and technologies to improve the safety and efficiency of aircraft and ground vehicle operations. This research helps set regulatory standards to improve ground operations and safety.


Examples of Visual Guidance Research

Researchers are looking at the durability of paint used on runway surfaces, conducting tests to determine how long the paint will last in various geographic regions under different weather conditions, and how reflective the paint is, particularly at night. Signage is evaluated for effectiveness. Researchers look at which colors are most effective for lettering, what size and scale the letters should be, and how size, shape and color are perceived. As a result of recent studies, a new orange safety construction sign has been put into service to let pilots know there is work underway on the runway or ramp.

ATR is conducting numerous research projects to aid in the transition from incandescent lighting to Light Emitting Diodes (LED) lights at airports across the nation. Brightness, glare, and flickering reports have been addressed and guidelines established to remedy issues.

Visual Guidance Research Focus Areas

ATR Visual Guidance research focuses on four areas consisting of the most important cues aiding in pilot situational awareness. Advancements in all four categories ensure that the National Airspace System (NAS) continues to operate as safely and reliably as possible, at all times and in all types of weather.


1. Airport Lighting Infrastructure

This area includes research and development on airport lighting fixture types, airport lighting engineering standards, and the infrastructure needed to operate and support lighting systems on an airport. This includes general airport lighting, runway lighting, and taxiway lighting. Specific research includes:

  • Light fixtures
  • Light Emitting Diode (LED) integration
  • Frangible connections
  • Airport electrical infrastructure
  • LEDs with infrared emitters
  • Solar powered lighting
  • Heliport lighting
  • Obstruction lighting


2. Airport Surface Markings, Signs, and Vehicle Operations

This area includes research and development on airport pavement markings and sign systems that are useful to pilots and vehicle operators during takeoff, landing, taxiing, and navigating on the airport to reduce runway incursions. This includes a variety of different types of surface markings, applications, colors, conspicuity, as well as the painting, marking, and lighting of ground vehicles that operate in the aircraft movement area. Specific research includes:


3. Lighting Innovations & Special Projects

This area includes research and development on new visual guidance ideas and concepts, photometric laboratory testing of lights and light fixture technologies, and special projects, such as mitigation of wrong surface landing events. FAA operates a photometric laboratory used for initial assessments of lighting fixtures for photometry and colorimetry prior to certification by an independent laboratory. FAA also has a Cooperative Agreement with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Lighting Research Center for a variety of research topics such as LEDs, photometrics, UAS-based photometry, technology scouting, human factors and 3D Printed Optics.


4. National Airspace System (NAS) Visual Aids

The NAS Visual Aids research is conducted in coordination with the FAA Lighting Systems Office. FAA researchers also assist with Precision Approach Path Indicator, PAPI, installation and siting criteria, obstruction identification, and obstruction solutions such as “baffles.” Additionally, FAA operates an experimental Medium Intensity Approach Lighting System with Runway Alignment Indicator Lights (MALSR) for test and evaluation purposes at Atlantic City International Airport’s Runway 4.

Specific research areas include, but are not limited to:

  • Approach lighting systems, such as MALSR
  • Visual NAVAIDS Vertical Glide Slope Indicators (VGSI), such as PAPI
  • LED lamps with infrared emitters to enable LEDs to be seen with night vision goggles or by aircraft with enhanced vision systems
  • Runway End Identifier Lights (REIL), and other navigational systems pilots use to safely land aircraft


Learn More

CSA Visual Aids Handbook