The National Airspace System Gets an Upgrade

A man in an airport terminal watches a plane take off.

Robert Hemm is an aviation industry expert who spoke with Fast Forward about innovative technologies that have the potential to transform the aviation industry.

Hemm is quite knowledgeable about about aviation technology. After attending college to become an aeronautical engineer, he spent over 20 years as an engineer with the United States Air Force. During that time period, he worked on projects involving things like rocket propulsion and high energy gas dynamic lasers. Then he took an interest in logistics, which he explains as “getting the right [products] to the right people at the right time,” and began working for the distinguished Logistics Management Institute based in Washington, D.C. Today, at the Institute, he’s co-authoring a book that explains the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) technology to airport operators.

Robert Hemm, Logistics Management Institute.

Click a button to watch an interview with Robert Hemm:

NextGen, Hemm explained, is a technological revolution by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that’s changing the way the aviation system in America operates. NextGen programs include replacing radar with satellite information for air traffic control, using digital voice communication, creating tailored aviation weather products, developing system wide information management; and sharing real-time data among controllers, aircraft operators, and airports.

For over 70 years, pilots and air traffic controllers have relied on radar for navigation and to pinpoint the position of aircraft in the sky. Air traffic radar works by sending a radio signal into the sky where the signal bounces off airplanes in its path. The amount of time that elapses between sending the signal and the signal bouncing back to Earth can be used to calculate information about the airplane, such as its distance and airspeed. The system isn’t 100% accurate as the airplane is already a little further away by the time the signal bounces back. Even with its limitations, radar has performed admirably for decades.

However, as Hemm explained, there have been significant digital advancements in recent years.

“We’ve had a revolution in digital computing. You have more [computing power] in your phone than it took us to go to the moon,” said Hemm.

Today, we have satellites and Global Positioning Systems (GPS). One of the NextGen programs is to use GPS in airports, air traffic control centers, and aircraft rather than radar. The switch from using radar to using GPS is expected to improve the safety and efficiency of the National Airspace System.

If radar is like watching The Ed Sullivan Show on a 1940s television, then GPS is like watching Avatar at your local IMAX theatre. GPS is much more accurate than radar and is broadcast in near real-time. It also improves time efficiency and safety compared to radar. For example, pilots used to have to chart their flights to stay within range of land-based radar beacons that only had a range of about 200 miles. This sometimes meant going out of their way and using more fuel just to stay in radar range. With GPS, this is no longer necessary. Planes can simply fly the most direct route. GPS also provides pilots and air traffic controllers with real-time weather conditions.

Watch our video with Robert Hemm to learn more about what’s happening with NextGen. Check out the Wikipedia article on NextGen to find out more.

Aaron Mack
Fast Forward: Volume 3 Issue 7 – Aviation