All commercial aircraft in U.S. will soon have GPS technology

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The flight deck of a plane equipped with ADS-B. Airlines in the U.S. must install ADS-B outbound transponders by Jan. 1.
The flight deck of a plane equipped with ADS-B. Airlines in the U.S. must install ADS-B outbound transponders by Jan. 1. Photo Credit: FAA

The FAA expects that U.S. airlines will universally meet a Jan. 1 deadline for the installation of GPS transponders on every aircraft, setting the stage to realize more of the potential air traffic control (ATC) benefits afforded by the network of GPS-based transmitters the agency finished installing in 2014.

The system is known as Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B.

“Having the equipment universally in place is absolutely essential for us to provide additional safety and efficiency benefits to people who fly every day,” said David Gray, the FAA’s acting deputy director for surveillance services. 

John Maffei, the FAA’s deputy director of NextGen Portfolio Management & Technology Directorate, said that as of Dec. 1, 97% of mainline U.S. aircraft had been equipped with the soon-to-be-required ADS-B transponders. In addition, 95% of regional aircraft had been fitted with the devices, and he added that all U.S. airlines have said they will meet the Jan. 1 deadline. 

The FAA’s move from radar-based flight surveillance to the ADS-B surveillance system is a major component of the $22 billion NextGen air transportation system modernization that the agency has been undertaking since 2007.

Aircraft equipped with ADS-B outbound transponders can be tracked by controllers on a second-by-second basis, Gray said. In contrast, the FAA’s current radar stations can only track a plane’s location somewhere between every four to 12 seconds.

A graphic shows the communication process between aircraft, air traffic control, ADS-B ground transmitters and GPS satellites.
A graphic shows the communication process between aircraft, air traffic control, ADS-B ground transmitters and GPS satellites. Source: FAA

“That makes a real big difference for controllers when they are working busy airspace in particular,” Gray said. He added that GPS technology is also more precise than radar.

“When you couple those two things  --  the accuracy rate and the more frequent updates  --  it really allows controllers to have a sense about what an aircraft is doing at any time,” Gray said. 

Even without the mandate being in place, the domestic ADS-B network has already begun to improve FAA controller capabilities, especially in specific regions, Maffei said. One of those areas is the Gulf of Mexico, where radar infrastructure could not be installed. As a result, aircraft traversing the Gulf typically had to be separated by 10 minutes, approximately 80 miles.

Unlike radar towers, however, oil platforms in the Gulf can support ADS-B transmitters. So ADS-B-equipped aircraft flying a route such as Tampa-Cancun are now visible to air traffic controllers, which has enabled them to reduce aircraft separation to as few as five miles.

Maffei said the visibility afforded by the domestic ADS-B network has also enabled the opening of offshore routes between New York JFK and Florida airports during busy travel periods.

In addition, the technology has improved ATC capabilities more broadly.

“I interact with controllers all the time about ADS-B,” Gray said. “There are lots of anecdotal stories about how the faster updates really do make a difference, particularly in more crowded airspace.”

Safety, too, has been improved, according to Coleen Hawrysko, operations program manager for the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization, or Canso, whose members are air navigation system providers around the world, including the FAA. She said the impacts have been most significant in remote U.S. airspace, such as over Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico. 

The FAA completed installation of ADS-B transmitters in 2014.
The FAA completed installation of ADS-B transmitters in 2014. Photo Credit: FAA

Still, the arrival of the actual ADS-B deadline sets the stage for the FAA to commence formal airspace management changes that could only begin once all commercial aircraft have been equipped with the transponders.

The first step, Gray said, will be a reduction in the spacing of aircraft from five miles to three miles in what the FAA calls the transition altitudes, between 10,000 and 25,000 feet. The condensed spacing will first be implemented in Boston and Seattle this year ahead of an anticipated broader rollout. 

The FAA already spaces aircraft three miles apart below 10,000 feet. But expanding that three-mile zone up to 25,000 feet will allow for more efficiency sooner as planes begin to bunch up ahead of arrival at large airports.

The arrival of the mandate deadline also sets the stage for controllers to more effectively use parallel runways that are spaced closely together, Maffei said -- for example, in Detroit, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, where airports have runways in such proximity. 

The FAA is in the process of completing a safety analysis on the matter now, and then it will begin looking at the business proposition for such improvements in conjunction with airports and airlines. Implementation could start in about a year.

Other improvements will also be enabled. For example, improved location reporting should mean controllers will be more accurate in deciding when to order en-route adjustments, which are undertaken to prevent aircraft conflicts based on location projections made 20 minutes ahead of time.

The FAA’s expectation that all aircraft will be equipped with ADS-B also factored into the timing of a trial it will start in March tracking aircraft over the Caribbean between Miami and Puerto Rico. That trial will make use of the space-based ADS-B surveillance system launched in April by the company Aireon, which is already active in the North Atlantic corridor between the U.S. and Europe.

As the FAA mandate goes into place, airlines and air navigators in Europe are preparing for the arrival of the ADS-B transponder mandate there in June. According to Hawrysko, European operators are behind their U.S. counterparts, with equipage levels currently at approximately 75%. Mandates are also already in effect in various other countries, including Colombia, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, Canada and Australia. 

She said she expects more countries to transfer from radar to ADS-B-based tracking.

“I think it is going to continue to spread as [air navigation service providers] become more mature,” Hawrysko said.

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