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2021 FAA Challenge: Smart Airport Student Competition

The FAA challenges undergraduate and graduate students to develop innovative ways to use smart technology in and around airports to enhance the overall travel experience.

Federal Aviation Administration

Total Cash Prizes Offered: $25,000
Type of Challenge: Software and apps, Ideas, Technology demonstration and hardware, Business plans, Analytics, visualizations, algorithms
Partner Agencies | Non-federal: National Institute of Aerospace
Submission Start: 10/15/2020 12:00 PM ET
Submission End: 02/04/2021 11:59 PM ET


The FAA is sponsoring the FAA Challenge: Smart Airport Student Competition (“Smart Airport Challenge”) to recognize students with the ability to demonstrate innovative thinking focused on improving the efficiency, effectiveness, and utilization of smart technology in and around the airport environment while enhancing the overall traveling experience.

The FAA is using this competition to:

  • stimulate and advance innovation in aviation research;
  • promote the development of a robust aviation workforce to support a growing and evolving aerospace system;
  • develop a pipeline to fill current and projected shortages via partnerships with academia and industry;
  • and drive a passion for aviation in today’s youth of all ages and backgrounds.

The FAA intends to incentivize university-level students at accredited United States-based colleges and universities to think creatively in developing solutions to transportation technology challenges while addressing the human factors aspects of the traveler’s experience, and to share those innovations with the broader community.

Universities should consider the cutting-edge needs of the FAA and smart airports of the future, focusing on key emerging technology areas of health-smart airports, Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), data analytics, and autonomous robotics systems. Teams should propose one (1) of the four (4) following themes:

Theme 1: Increased Sanitation and Hygiene Practices for Health-Smart Airports The COVID-19 pandemic has caused public concern regarding air travel due to potential spread of the virus through human contact, surfaces, and air particles. Smart airports of the future should be designed to reduce the spread of pathogens. Innovative solutions are sought for integrating health screening into the security process, reducing the need for physical contact or proximity with passengers through automation, increasing monitoring of social distancing and symptomatic individuals, improving air circulation and filtering, and improving sanitation practices, including the use of UV light.

Theme 2: Innovative Uses for Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) at Airports The use of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) has increased exponentially over the past decade. Smart airports of the future could safely use UAS in a variety of functions. Innovative solutions are sought for the use of tethered or untethered Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), or “drones,” for UAV/wildlife detection and mitigation, detection of foreign objects or ice on runways/taxiways, aircraft and runway inspection, perimeter security, and increased connectivity.

Theme 3: Smart Airport Data Analytics Data analytics is an emerging field of analyzing raw data in order to make conclusions and is being used nationwide to discover and predict trends. Airports are complex systems rich in data that could be used to improve operations, passenger experience, and safety. Innovative solutions are sought for the use of big data analytic techniques to reduce security wait times, facilitate navigation, increase the probability of on-time departures, reduce energy consumption, automate interpretation of video data, and improve operational efficiency.

Theme 4: Innovative Uses for Autonomous Robotics Systems at Airports Autonomous and semi-autonomous robotics systems are being used throughout industry to improve productivity and perform potentially hazardous operations. High levels of reliability and trusted autonomy are required for such systems to be integrated into airport operations. Innovative reliable autonomous systems are sought for security screening, mobility of passengers and equipment, baggage handling and transport, baggage inspection and tracking, UAV/wildlife detection and mitigation, perimeter security, and runway incursion detection.

Please carefully review the FAA Challenge website for updated competition details.

Key Dates:

Submissions: The FAA Challenge competition will accept submissions between 12:00 PM ET October 15, 2020 and 11:59 PM ET February 4, 2021.

Expression of Interest: Teams are encouraged to submit an Expression of Interest to compete in this FAA Challenge by 11:59 PM ET November 12, 2020.

Finalist Announcement: A panel of FAA judges will conduct an evaluation and select three finalist teams, which will be announced in early March 2021.

Demonstration and Awards: Finalist teams will be invited to the FAA Challenge Forum to demonstrate their concepts in late June 2021. A $25,000 award will be given to the lead university of the winning team.

Please carefully review the official competition website for the most up-to-date competition details.


Total Cash Prize Pool:


Prize Breakdown:

Travel Reimbursement up to $6,000 will be awarded to each of the three finalist teams to help offset the cost of traveling to the 2021 FAA Challenge Forum and Awards Ceremony to demonstrate their concepts. A $25,000 prize will be presented to the lead university of the winning team.

Non-monetary Prizes:

Finalist teams will be invited to demonstrate their concepts at the FAA Challenge Forum (location TBD) in 2021. Student participants of each finalist team will receive certificates.


Rules: The FAA Challenge: Smart Airport Student Competition is open to teams of undergraduate and graduate students at accredited United States based colleges and universities. Teams may include senior capstone students, clubs, multi-university or multi-disciplinary students. Teams are encouraged to collaborate and work in concert with industry partners.

See the challenge website for complete eligibility requirements, rules, terms and conditions.

Terms and Conditions: Teams that do not comply with the rules, terms and conditions listed on the challenge website may be disqualified.

Judging Criteria

Judging Panel:

The FAA Challenge Steering Committee, a panel of FAA subject matter experts, will serve as judges for the challenge and evaluate, rate and rank submissions to select three finalist teams.

Initial Screening

The Prize Administrator will initially review entries to determine that all required submission elements are included and to determine compliance with eligibility requirements.

Evaluation and Selection

The finalist teams will be notified by early March 2021. Teams will be evaluated based on their submission’s technical merit, practicality, impact, and originality. For full evaluation criteria, please see the challenge website.

How to Enter

STEP I: Expression of Interest: Due by 11:59 PM ET on 11/12/2020

Academic institutions are strongly encouraged to submit an expression of interest to compete prior to submitting entries. Teams who indicate interest by the stated deadline will be invited to participate in an exclusive Question and Answer (Q&A) Session with the Challenge program staff and judges prior to the proposal due date. Expressions of interest must be submitted by 11:59 PM ET on November 12, 2020. The expression of interest is non-binding.

To submit an expression of interest (EOI), teams should complete the EOI form available from the challenge website.

STEP II: Project Plan Proposals: Due on or before 11:59 PM ET on 02/04/2021

Project Plan Proposal submissions must be transmitted electronically via the challenge website submission form by 11:59 PM ET on February 4, 2021. Late submissions will result in disqualification. Any other form of submission may be rejected.

The challenge administrator will acknowledge receipt of submissions and will review entries to determine that all required submission elements are included and that the team is in compliance with eligibility requirements. In some circumstances, the challenge administrator may request supplemental information including supporting documents, more detailed contact information, and statements of authenticity to guarantee the originality of the work.

Submission URL:

Submission Email:

Point of Contact

Have feedback or questions about this challenge? Send the challenge manager an email