FAA Capstone tests commercial satellite coverage

FAA Capstone tests commercial satellite coverage

An experimental Federal Aviation Administration program for aircraft traffic control is testing satellites as a way to extend coverage, FAA program manager John Hallinan said.

The agency awarded a $2 million contract to General Dynamics Corp. to investigate the feasibility of using commercial satellites to extend the coverage range of its Capstone Communications Control System (www.alaska.faa.gov/capstone).

Since 2001, FAA has been testing a new tracking approach in Alaska in which each airplane transmits information on its own location. This approach, called automatic dependent surveillance broadcast technology, differs from the traditional way of tracking aircraft by radar. Proponents claim the new approach provides more detailed information about an aircraft's airspeed, altitude and direction.

The initial rollout of the Capstone Program, which includes this new technology, covered portions of southeast Alaska, with 12 ground stations collecting and coordinating data among the aircraft. But because Alaska has large stretches of mountainous, barely-populated terrain, most of the aircraft travelling through the state still remain untracked by the new approach. A ground station might cover up to 150 square miles, and about 200 ground stations would be needed to cover the entire state.

'Due to the size of the state, it would be way to costly to provide a ground-based service infrastructure. What we think is probably viable is using satellite capability to supplement in remote airspace,' Hallinan said. 'So we are taking first steps to see how viable this approach is.'

The integrator will investigate how well a satellite data communications service from Iridium Satellite LLC of Arlington, Va., will work for transmitting small packets of location data to and from each craft.

Iridium owns 66 low-earth orbit communications satellites circling the earth.

General Dynamics also will research other aspects of satellite coverage, including latencies of data satellite communications speeds as well as methods of keeping costs down, such as having multiple aircraft share information.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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