GPS to be eye in the sky for air traffic control

The Global Positioning System will play an increasingly important role in the Federal Aviation Administration's plan for revamping and expanding the antiquated U.S. air traffic control system, according to airline industry leaders participating in an industry roundtable this week sponsored by Raytheon.

FAA's new program will rely on Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) technology, which uses transponders aboard planes and GPS satellites to determine aircraft position with much greater accuracy.

"It is the surveillance technology necessary to provide the command and the control of aircraft competing for the limited and increasingly more restricted airspace that will be essential to meet the growing demands of our national airspace system," said Capt. Bart Roberts of American Airlines at the event. "ADS-B is a critical component of the worldwide development of the next-generational national airspace system."

Raytheon is leading one of three teams FAA has chosen as finalists to implement the ground infrastructure for an air traffic surveillance system that will replace the current radar-based system.

In 2005, FAA committed to using ADS-B as the backbone of its Next Generation Air Transportation System. The agency says the system will cost $15 billion to $22 billion by the time it is fully completed by 2025. FAA has budgeted $80 million this year for ADS-B and another $85 million in fiscal 2008.

FAA has started using a system based on ADS-B along the Eastern Seaboard and has conducted operational evaluations in Alaska and the Ohio Valley. Experts say ADS-B will let pilots and air traffic controllers determine an aircraft's position with respect to other planes and geographic features with far greater accuracy.

The other two finalist teams are ITT and Lockheed Martin. Lockheed Martin, which has already participated in successful ADS-B projects with the FAA, includes Harris, Honeywell International and Sensis in its proposal. Thales, a member of ITT's team, has successfully implemented ADS-B technology for Australia, France and Eurocontrol. The Raytheon-led team's plan includes XM Satellite Radio and Verizon's commercial-communication systems to minimize costs and provide adverse-weather updates for pilots.

Experts say the ADS-B technology will enhance a pilot's situational awareness, increase safety, improve navigation and boost capacity.

The Air Transport Association of America, the country's oldest and largest airline trade association, and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which represents more than 400,000 general-aviation aircraft owners and pilots, support using ADS-B technology. However, commercial and general-aviation advocates disagree over how FAA should finance the overhaul.

FAA is expected to announce the winner of the ADS-B contract later this summer.

Ben Bain is a writer for Washington Technology's affiliate publication, Federal Computer Week, published by the 1105 Government Information Group.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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