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RelativeResourceManager3 - Emerging CR E DIT Technologies T...

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Technologies Emerging
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44 FEATURE STORY TECHNOLOGY REVIEW may 2005 Airborne Networks AVIATION An Internet in the sky could let planes fly safely without ground controllers. By David Talbot The technology that underpins the air traffi c control system hasn’t changed much in a half-century. Planes still depend on elaborate ground-based radar systems, plus thousands of people who watch blips on screens and issue verbal instructions, for takeoffs, landings, and course changes. The system is expensive, hard to scale up, and prone to delays when storms strike. An entirely different approach is possible. Each plane could continually transmit its identity, precise location, speed, and heading to other planes in the sky via an airborne network. Soft- ware would then take over, coördinating the system by issuing in- structions to pilots on how to stay separated, optimize routes, avoid bad weather, and execute precise landings in poor visibility. In the near term, such technology could save travelers time and might reduce fuel consumption. Long term, it could revolu- tionize air travel by enabling more planes to fill the sky without the addition of infrastructure and staff. Vastly greater numbers of small planes could zip in and out of thousands of small airfields (there are 5,400 in the U.S. alone), even those with no radar at all. “The biggest holdback to the number of airplanes that can be in the sky is that air traffi c controllers are separating aircraft by hand,” says Sally Johnson, an aerospace engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center. “Until you get away from that para- digm, we are at the limits of what you can do.” As a practical matter, airborne networks that rely on software and cockpit computers rather than humans to issue instructions are still decades away. But in June, NASA plans to demonstrate a prototype of such an automated system at a small airport in Dan- ville, VA. A computer at a ground station near the airport will re- ceive data from multiple planes and give the pilots their initial holding fixes, then tell them what planes they’re following and where to go if they miss their approaches. In the planes, cockpit displays will show pilots where the other planes are, and a com- puter will give them instructions that guide their trajectories. Future systems might go further: planes would communicate not just via a computer on the ground (or via satellite) but di- rectly with each other, relaying in- formation from other planes in an Internet-like fashion. This radical advance in airborne networking could come from research funded by the Pentagon—the midwife of today’s terrestrial Internet. The vision is that not only navigational data but information about tar- gets, real-time intelligence, and bombing results would flow freely among manned and unmanned military planes, to vehicles on the ground, and up and down chains AIRBORNE NETWORKS ILLUSTRATION BY +ISM General Aviation Forecast America’s skies will grow ever more crowded in the coming decade, as the number of small aircraft multiplies.
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