Imagine driving down the freeway and deciding now would be a good time to change lanes for that upcoming exit you want. You make a call (hands-free, of course) to a controller who is monitoring the freeways and request permission to change lanes for your upcoming exit. The controller is very busy handling everyone else and tells you to wait. The controller finally gets back to you and tells you that there is too much traffic, you will have to miss your exit and proceed to the next one.

This is basically how we have flown planes for the last sixty years. A radar operator in a Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC) guides each plane across vast distances and then transfers control to a Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) when the plane approaches a major urban center and finally to the air traffic control tower (ATCT) for the airport. Each plane must be separated by one mile horizontally and 1000 feet vertically and fly only along specified routes much like a superhighway. The separation is necessary to due something called latency. The time between sweeps of the radar when the operator doesn’t know exactly where the plane is located. This spacing means only so many planes can be stacked up on a given route. No wonder our skies are too crowded!

The FAA just received $11 Billion in funding to fully implement a new system based upon GPS. For more read the article here. It is called ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surviellance – Broadcast).  I happened to have worked on one of the alternate ADS-B configuration back in 2007 and know quite a bit on how it works.  This system brings our air traffic control system into the 21st century by using the same GPS location technology that most people use every day in thier car or phone.  Once a plane is equipped, it can determine its position via GPS satellites. It then transmits this location to a ground system which broadcasts it to all other planes in the vicinity. Thus, the pilots not only see where their plane is at all times, but all the other planes as well. The display looks very much like a Microsoft Flight Simulator. Here is an example.

The history is that this was first fielded as an experimental system in Alaska (where radar coverage is sparse) back about ten years ago.  The system technology was selected in 2007 and the contract awarded to ITT.  They then installed the system in five test areas that represented difficult conditions such as the oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.  The FAA has been waiting on full funding ever since, but everyone knows the politics played with their budget culminating the the six week shutdown of all  construction over the summer.  The funding had finally been approved.  No doubt due to it being an election year.

With this system, pilots are no longer dependent on a radar technician to tell them where to go.  They can “self-separate”.  In other words, they can act just like you do when you drive down the freeway and move over because someone is too close or change lanes when you see a safe opening in traffic.  Planes also will not be restricted to specific routes in the airspace.  All of this should greatly decrease crowded skies over our busiest airports by allowing more planes to operate safely in the same amount of airspace.  The FAA will save money by not operating expensive radars and keeping so many highly paid air traffic controllers on staff.

Posted by glenn | 8 Comments

8 responses to “A New Way to Drive in the Sky”

  1. A very informative post. Well done! Just think how much “gas” this could save the airlines each year.

  2. glenn says:

    @deltagoldflyer – You are right about the gas savings which adds up to thousands saved per flight by flying point to point. The FAA thought the airlines would jump on this and pay the ~$250k per plane to equip them with the ADS-B. All the airlines played “woe is me” and said they couldn’t afford it and the government should just give it to them. FEDEX was the only early adopter.

  3. Scottrick says:

    Not just the gas but also the time savings are huge. When my dad flies his own plane, sometimes there are crazy detours if he’s using instrument flight rules. I enjoy the sunny, clear days when we can use visual flight rules and pick our own route.

  4. Pointasaurous says:

    However, I can easily envision pilots simultaneously making in flight adjustments in heavy traffic and suddenly getting in someone else’s airspace who then react causing yet another potential conflict. Kind of like what happens on the Interstate in fast heavy traffic when one idiot does something stupid and the chain reaction occurs.

  5. I’m amazed that a technology like this was in use by the military long before consumers had it in their cars and JUST NOW is when it shows up in commercial aviation? Great post!

  6. When I originally commented I clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now every time a comment is added I get four emails using the very same comment. Is there any way you’ll be able to eliminate me from that service? Thanks!

    • glenn says:


      Obviously a technical glitch beyond my means to correct. I have sent your note to the Boarding Area tech guru and hope to get you a fix soon.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

home top