Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Look Ma - No Radar!

Have been hearing about this light plane crash recently and after reading about how parts of the area the crash occurred in have 'poor radar coverage' I did some research and found this article:

Look, Ma - No Radar! Tomorrow's Air Traffic Control

and this section jumped out at me:

We can do better

GPS makes a whole new approach to air traffic control possible -- the notion of networking GPS units together into one large network.

What if each airborne GPS receiver could report its location and altitude, unasked, every second? Then controllers on the ground would know exactly where every airplane was, more often and accurately than they could by relying on a radar sweep every six or 12 seconds.

Let’s not stop there. What if other aircraft could read each other’s locations, opening the way to a new generation of independent collision avoidance equipment? Even without controllers to call traffic or any human intervention, every aircraft so equipped would have the means to avoid a collision.

Take it one last step. How about equipping each airborne unit with a datalink receiver to receive traffic and weather information and other data such as airspace restrictions without having to talk on the radio?

and later in the article this:

ADS-B has been tested successfully in one of the world’s harshest aviation environments -- Alaska1. The seven-year Capstone program proved that ADS-B could track both weather and traffic when bundled with a GPS receiver and a moving map.

The ADS-B system offers radar-quality aircraft separation services, possible decreases in travel time and better air traffic and aircraft fleet management. All could save airlines and travelers time and money, and reduce pollution, too.

and the money shot is here:

Can ADS-B co-exist with radar?

In the long term, no. The cost to maintain both would be astronomical and redundant. The cost to maintain the aging radar network is about $150 million a year, and it would cost about $2.5 billion to upgrade to ADS-B capabilities.

By contrast, the entire ADS-B system, including ground-based transceivers at about $200,000 each, is being built for about $1.8 billon, and will cost about $30 million a year to operate and maintain.

For this we will get coverage from high altitude right down to the ground, and ADS-B can be used for on-airport surveillance as well.

As for when ADS-B will be introduced throughout the United States, implementation has already begun. It is now available along the east coast from Florida to New Jersey. In August 2007 FAA awarded ITT Corporation a $1.8 billion contract to build and maintain the ADS-B infrastructure nationally. Uniquely, ITT will own and operate the system, and will be paid to supply ADS-B data to the FAA. The full system will be online by 2020.

So, the new system is coming in any event and will cost a third as much to maintain - which means radar-based air traffic control will likely be playing a faint second fiddle by 2010. Something tells me when folks see how much better it works the government will get in the game and hustle ITT to finish the system ahead of schedule.

But this article about the folks that perished in the crash had this insightful if somewhat harsh comment:
Flying is not inherently risky as some have implied here. Having said that, any risk must be managed properly. Many properly trained light aircraft pilots fly every day safely. Unfortunately, like some have alluded to, there are plenty of light aircraft owners who don't obey the rules or have the training, responsibility or experience required to make the right choices.

That's why statistically, you are about 10 times more likely to be involved in a crash flying in a light aircraft than traveling in a car.

It's not the fault of the regulations or the design of aircraft. It's the result of too many morons with too much money owning airplanes.
Ouch. I wouldn't say the pilot in this case was a 'moron' - far from it in fact:
Maureau, a geophysicist, was appointed the executive director of the Oil and Gas Development Partnership at Memorial University in St. John's in 2003, where he helped develop a master's program. He worked for Shell and Petro-Canada, and founded his own company, MaurOil International Inc. He was also the past president of the Canadian Petroleum Institute.
How sad. Clearly a brilliant man - his wife was no slouch either - an accomplished physician.

Maybe incidents like this will help the FAA realize it's past time to modernize and get behind the ADS-B program. Decreasing risk is one of the good things government does for us (FDA, EPA, etc). Personally, I'd like to see more money spent on prevention than playing jigsaw with mangled airplane bits in an empty hangar.
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1. McCain, Palin and Bush endorsed it, but let's not hold that against it - however, the lack of standards is a concern and needs to be addressed.

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