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Eyes in the sky are changing

Juneau a key site for a nationwide technology shift

Posted: Thursday, January 13, 2011

How pilots and air traffic controllers see and track the locations of aircraft in the sky is changing, and Juneau is one of four key U.S. sites implementing a mandatory nationwide technology change.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s Surveillance and Broadcast Services Department has been working on a technology change that began in Alaska. The Capstone Project started between the aviation industry and the FAA to improve safety and efficiency in Alaska, said Jimmy Wright, Senior Systems Engineer with Lockheed Martin and the FAA. Wright gave a presentation to the Juneau International Airport Board on Wednesday night.

Under the Capstone Project, the FAA provided a lot of avionics equipment for aircraft and ground infrastructure between 1999 and 2006.

“We had that awful accident rate up here,” Wright said. “Capstone said we’ve got to do something. They came up here and installed all kinds of GPS avionics. It really reduced the accident rate by almost half here in Alaska.”

Part of that technology is called ADS-B — Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast.

The technology involves a kind of transmitter box in each aircraft which sends a radio message to a piece of equipment on the ground. The communications between technology will send data to a small digital screen on the plane, so the pilot can see the location and direction of other aircraft in the area. All of this is done without manual work by the pilot.

Wright said the only portion that uses GPS determines the position of the plane.

The system provides two key points, the critical service of surveillance broadcast services — so air traffic controllers can better see the whole picture — and essential services of traffic and flight information broadcast services so pilots can better assess the area. The system also will upload graphical weather information that can intertwine with aircraft data.

Wright said this system enhances visual acquisition, approaches, final approaches and runway occupancy awareness, airport surface awareness and other details.

Wright said this ADS-B has the potential to change other aviation rules. Currently, aircraft must be five miles apart. This system allows for more detail so it could be possible to allow a tighter airspace. Wright said the East Coast is currently saturated and there is no way to add more airspace, but technology could allow for better usage of airspace.

This technology is now mandated by the federal government, so most airplanes will need to be equipped with an ADS-B device by 2020. The FAA issued the mandate last year.

While testing and implementation is ongoing in four key sites, including the Gulf of Mexico and Juneau, the rest of the United States is getting the groundwork.

“We’re committed to this,” Wright said. “We’re two-thirds of the way done.”

Wright said his department promised to have critical services online and certified nationwide by 2013. Wright said changes like this take extensive testing and approval through the FAA, and Juneau only has a couple more steps before final certification.

To see images of what pilots see, and maps of how the system works go to: www.juneau.org/airport/pdf/20110107100533-a1.pdf .

• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at sarah.day@juneauempire.com.



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