As news report after report discusses declines in the commercial aviation market, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the airspace over the United States is only forecasted to grow more congested. Economic conditions, long the bearer of the burden of the majority of the blame, will eventually improve and more of the public will return to the skies. This will mean more planes carrying more people to more destinations; a situation that will tax an already highly-burdened air traffic control system.
General aviation will also continue to grow. Current forecasts show the number of general aviation aircraft in the skies will increase by just under 1% per year.
While that may not seem like dramatic growth, one needs only to look up throughout most of the country to see just how many planes are in the sky at any given time. Live air traffic sites like flightradar24.com also illustrate that the airways above your house and the highways outside of your town are starting to share more and more characteristics – including the occasional backup.
Since the day we figured out that we needed a way to know where planes were in the sky, we’ve used radar to bounce radio signals off of them, wait for those signals to return, and use that information to plot their positions relative to other aircraft.
It has suited us well. Since its first demonstrated use in the late 1930’s as a tool for British air defense, radar has taken responsibility for virtually every aspect of military and civilian airspace control.
However, radar has always had limitations. Factors such as distance from the station, weather, geographic formations, and other obstacles can have dramatic impacts on radar’s accuracy. It is limitations like these which necessitate very strict standards for aircraft separation; not to mention the various procedures that must be followed when flying in airspace where radar coverage is simply not possible.
The Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen, has been developed as the answer to these problems, and more. And ADS-B plays a critical role in that vision.
Changing “Where Are You?” to “Here I Am” – What is ADS-B?
ADS-B, or automatic dependent surveillance – broadcast, takes most of the responsibility for reporting an aircraft’s position away from radar and gives it to the aircraft itself. Using information obtained from the constellation of Global Navigation Satellite System satellites (most simply know this as GPS), the aircraft continuously broadcasts its location, as well as other selected parameters such as speed, heading, altitude, and flight number, to receivers located both on the ground and in the skies.
Once installed, the system requires no pilot interaction. It is always on, whether you’re on the ground or in the air, and it never stops sending vital information while the aircraft is powered on.
Impacts to General Aviation
The impact of the ADS-B rollout to general aviation is, as you can imagine, enormous. Much like the glass cockpit changed the pilot’s relationship with his or her instruments, ADS-B will change their relationship with situational awareness, safety, and the routes they may be accustomed to flying.
While ADS-B “Out” capabilities are mandated to be operational on all aircraft by 2020, optional ADS-B “In” systems will give pilots a view of the skies around them usually reserved for radar operators. These systems will receive ADS-B broadcasts from ADS-B “Out” equipped aircraft and display those aircraft, and all associated information, on screens in cockpits in everything from single-engine Cessnas to Gulfstream jets. For the first time in history, a general aviation pilot can, at the touch of a screen, obtain a complete picture of everything going on in his or her area and then act accordingly.
There are many other facets to this exciting new technology and we are going to take a much more in-depth look at them here on the blog. Be sure to check back for posts on topics like the impacts of ADS-B on ground operations, environmental and fuel impacts, safety and communication, and aircraft separation rules.
But, for now, you should at least start getting ready for ADS-B if you haven’t already. 2020 is just around the corner.