Imagine flying a Spitfire in World War Two.
As you set a course across the cloudy English Channel, you look at your compass and chart. You know the Luftwaffe are out there, but you don’t know where. You frantically scan the sky, looking for enemy aircraft. So much depends on seeing the ME109 before he sees you.
A voice crackles in your headset. “Bandits! 3–0 miles. Climb Angels 2–0.”
There has always been an advantage to knowing exactly where other aircraft are.
Britain was the first to demonstrate radio detection of aircraft in 1935. In the years that followed, the looming threat of invasion that led to a thrust in the development of electronic aircraft surveillance. By the outset of WWII, both the United Kingdom and Germany were frantically trying to outdo the other’s efforts in radio navigation.
“RDF” was the code name given to this super-secret technology. On the Japanese front, RAF installations were called “Air Ministry Experiment Stations.” In 1940, the U.S. navy coined the term RADAR (Radio Detection and Ranging) which has stuck with us to this day.
So has the technology.
Other than the ubiquitous aircraft transponder that augments radar interrogation, the technology has not fundamentally changed. Certain limitations have existed since the Battle of Britain: aircraft beyond line-of-sight over the ocean are impossible to track in real-time. Air traffic controllers today separate targets prone to radar lag, position error and line of site limitations, just as they did over the English Channel in the 1940s.
Most people don’t think about technology when they step on board an aircraft. They want it to work. So, when commercial aviation technology lets us down, it makes waves.
In the wake of MH370, The International Air Transport Association (IATA), released a report that highlighted the risk to public confidence if large and modern aircraft go missing.
Now many of the legacy ATC radar systems are reaching the end of their lifecycle.
In January 2019, Aireon launched the final ten payloads into space aboard Iridium NEXT satellites. The space-based ADS-B network 66 operational payloads and nine spares, is fully functional.
ADS-B provides superior surveillance capability, with far greater accuracy than radar ever could.
According to Boeing and Airbus market forecasts, air traffic doubles roughly every fifteen to twenty years. By employing the Aireon system over the Atlantic, air traffic controllers are trialling the reduction of aircraft in-trail separation distances, making the airspace more flexible, and hopefully able to accommodate the future traffic growth.
The FAA has mandated ADS-B in U.S. airspace above 10,000 ft from January 2020. Six months later, Europe will do the same.
What this means for pilots
As a controller, I often see pilots flying VFR close to busy airports, not talking with ATC. In many cases, I think this is a mistake.
Just like it was for WWII pilots, having a second set of eyes that see the air traffic around you is helpful. Unfortunately, due to radar line-of-site limitations in the mountainous airspace which I work, many VFR pilots are not visible to ATC radar. Lack of surveillance in areas of high terrain also presents severe limitations to aiding lost aircraft.
However, soon, all aircraft, anywhere in the world, will be visible to ATC.
It will mean that ATC services will be available in areas where before Space-Based ADS-B, it was just not possible. It will also mean faster response times to aircraft in distress and a smaller search and rescue grid. Controllers will have better situational awareness, and this should open up more direct routings to pilots on long-haul flights over remote and oceanic regions.
The future is already here. It won’t be long until this service is available to pilots all over the world.