Thursday, June 3, 2010

What's backup plan if satellites go down on NextGen air traffic management system?

Posted by John Keller

The NextGen air traffic management system represents a revolutionary advancement in air traffic control, as the future system will use satellite navigation and guidance to enable commercial jetliners to fly not only straight lines to their destinations, but also to control their trajectories and flight profiles based on the performance of each aircraft to save time, fuel, and other operating costs.

But what happens if the satellites go down? This isn't out of the realm of possibility. A nuclear weapon detonated in low-Earth orbit could destroy or disable upwards of 80 percent of the navigation satellites on which not only NextGen air traffic management, but also any kind of Global Positioning System (GPS)-based navigation depends.

It worries me that countries we might consider to be rogue nations -- I'm thinking of Iran and North Korea here -- either have or are close to developing nuclear weapons and the means to boost these into Earth orbit and explode them there, taking out most of the communications, navigation, and home entertainment satellites residing there. Let's face it, it's only a matter of time before terrorist organizations get their hands on nukes capable of doing this job.

So assuming that we will in a short time have a primarily satellite-based air traffic control system, what do we do if the worst happens?

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in Washington has considered this possibility and has a backup plan in place, says Ronald Stroup, chief systems engineer at the FAA, who made his comments today at the Avionics USA conference and trade show in San Diego.

Stroup told conference attendees that the FAA has plans to continue maintaining its network of ground-based radar stations -- perhaps not all of them, but enough to do the job. In addition, FAA experts have plans to extend the ranges of ground-based radar systems to continue with air traffic control if satellite-based systems malfunction.

The FAA also plans to maintain its distance measuring equipment (DME) navigation systems so commercial aircraft can continue navigating from place to place using ground-based radio beacons. It might not be as efficient as the NextGen system, but at least we'll still have a functioning air traffic management system.

Finally, Stroup says the FAA plans to maintain radio-based voice communications to relay orders, directives, and crucial flight data to commercial aircraft in the event of a disaster that renders satellite-based systems inoperable.

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1 comment:

  1. It is advisable that the FAA maintains the ground based surveillance, navigation, and communication back ups. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association has been an advocate of maintaining these back ups since the inception of a satellite based system. However, the FAA sold this system to Congress under Administrator David Hinson as a way to eliminate costs. Those costs would be realized by the elimination of all ground based infrastructure. What a shell game this has become.