ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
This week, the Federal Aviation Administration is expected to award a contract worth more than a billion dollars for a new system to govern air traffic. It will use satellites, not radar. Raytheon, ITT and Lockheed Martin are vying for the contract. The technology is known as Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast or ADS-B. And the hope is the new system will reduce flight delays and make air travel safer. UPS is already using the new technology on some of its planes.
Reporter Alan Levin covers aviation for USA Today and he went along on one of those flights. Alan, how does it work?
Mr. ALAN LEVIN (Correspondent, USA Today): Well, quite simply instead of using radar to determine where a plane is, what you do is have the airplane calculate its position in space. With GPS, that's quite easy to do. And then the airplane broadcast that to the world once a second. The advantage is, with GPS, it knows much more precisely where it is. It can broadcast that signal much more frequently. Radar at high altitudes only updates once every 12 seconds. And the pilots in all the planes in the sky can see where all the other planes are for the first time.
BLOCK: And the thinking is that if this data is updated once a second, as opposed to, say, once every 12 seconds, you can actually have planes lying closer together which seems counterintuitive if you're talking about safer flight, that planes will actually be in closer proximity to one another.
Mr. LEVIN: Well, up at altitude, for example, the planes are five miles apart now. Most people feel that's way more space than you really need. But the reason they're five miles apart is out of concern that the radar is not that accurate and that it doesn't update that quickly. The thought is if you get an update once a second - so you know where everything is much more precisely - then you could fairly quickly go to three miles up at those higher altitudes.
One way to think about this new technology is, and to see the benefit, is in the New York area. Right now, there's plenty of space in the air around New York City, but you've got three busy commercial airports and then a couple of smaller corporate airports. They cannot bring any more planes into that area because all of these pathways into and out of these airports interfere with each other.
Well, when you have ADS-B on an airplane and you know precisely where it is, then you can do a much better job of bringing planes into airports. Now, I should have one caveat and that is that you've always got a restriction on how many planes you can land on a runway. And so, for example, at LaGuardia in New York, they are already landing as many planes as they possibly can on that small airport with only two runways. So ADSB will not help them a lot.
BLOCK: How will the new technology change the job of air traffic controllers? Will this be more automated?
Mr. LEVIN: Clearly, the FAA and the airlines would like to let the pilots make more decisions about where to go using this new technology. But just how far they can go to do that is really open right now. Now UPS, in the very near future, hopes to get permission to essentially line up its own flights to come into Louisville. Now they're not going to do it on all their planes, but they're going to start with a handful and then work from there.
Basically, they set - they'll get a message from the ground saying okay, you're to line up behind UPS flight three. They program a little thing into their flight computer that says follow flight three, and so they can create this giant conga line of planes coming in at precisely the right spacing, precisely the right speed, and precisely the right timing. And they're very hopeful that this will improve the efficiency at their hub.
Now, is that going to happen at Atlanta or New York next year? No. But I think, clearly, that is the goal to let pilots essentially drive and pick their routes more like they're on a highway than the traditional way pilots have flown for years now.
BLOCK: So sometime down the road, if I'm an air traffic controller, I'm looking at this technology thinking this is displacing me, no?
Mr. LEVIN: Yeah. That's a very good question. The official line from FAA is that they're not going to displace any controllers. There'll be plenty of work for them to do. The type of work they do may change. But they'll - as traffic goes up, they will need controllers to keep tabs on what's going on in the sky. So at least for now - and we're talking the next 20 years - there are no official plans to replace the controllers.
BLOCK: Alan Levin, thanks for coming in.
Mr. LEVIN: Thank you very much.
BLOCK: Alan Levin covers aviation for USA Today.
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