New air tech faces challenges

Air traffic control in the future will involve computers on the ground communicating directly with flight management systems in airplane cockpits—but achieving that and other innovations won't be easy, aviation experts said July 19.

With the National Airspace System (NAS) reaching the saturation point — and with an increase in commercial air transport expected over the next 10 years—a House Science Committee subcommittee hearing focused on efforts to bring about new technologies and other changes to improve air traffic management.

Steve Zaidman, FAA's associate administrator for research and acquisitions, said that in the future, the interchange between ground computers and aircraft will provide for better predictions of traffic and weather conflicts, and flight computers will be able to accept or reject proposed routings electronically.

The future system also will likely rely on satellites to allow precision approaches to every runway in the nation, without relying on installing expensive ground-based equipment, said Sam Venneri, NASA's associate administrator for aerospace technology. A global communication, navigation and surveillance system will allow for precise position and trajectory knowledge and enable flight paths to be adjusted en route, he said.

Boeing's plan for air traffic management, which the company outlined last month, is based on a satellite infrastructure, John Hayhurst, president of Boeing Co.'s air traffic management unit, said during the hearing. He explained that it will synthesize information about a plane's position, altitude, speed and other factors; lay out a common information network linking system users and operators; and open up the airspace for simplified traffic flow.

But incorporating new technologies into the air traffic control system has traditionally been difficult, the Zaidman said.

"Understanding what we want and understanding how to get there are two different things," Zaidman said. "One of the greatest challenges we have faced thus far in our modernization efforts is the deployment of new technologies without excessive disruption to a demanding and complex NAS."

In addition, most air traffic management development now takes place at NASA, making the implementation of new technologies more difficult for the FAA, said John Hansman, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's International Center for Air Transportation.

"The FAA is consumed with near-term operational problems and has traditionally been poor at anticipating and working long-term research needs," Hansman said. "In the past few years, the research budget has been cut dramatically and the FAA has essentially ceded much of its long-term research responsibility to NASA."

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