Smart technology could save airlines billions
This year, the first GPS-powered landing by an A380 took place in Australia.
One pilot said, “I’ve heard other pilots say this is as great a leap forward as the jet engine.”
Putting a GPS receiver on a plane is easy, but correcting for its margin of error, which may be as much as 30 feet for a rapidly descending airliner, is not.
For that, Fast Company reported, pilots need an assist from the ground. Enter Honeywell Aerospace, an arm of the $37 billion industrial conglomerate, which has supplied Qantas and a growing list of airports and airlines with the only available ground-based augmentation system (GBAS) for GPS-enabled navigation.
GBAS, which Honeywell calls SmartPath, is the first piece in a much vaster plan to overhaul air-traffic control.
Chicago’s O’Hare airport will spend $13 billion and 20 years realigning and adding runways to increase the number of takeoffs and landings by 20%. GBAS is ready to produce these kinds of efficiency improvements today for pennies on the dollar.
The airlines just might be able to save themselves if GBAS can save them a little time. Aviation consultant Michael Boyd estimates U.S. airlines waste $9 billion a year on delays beyond their control, which is more than the combined losses of all the world’s airlines in 2008. Relieving congestion in the most crowded hubs (35 airports handle 80% of domestic flights) could be all that stands between the airlines and profitability.
SmartPath awaits imminent certification from the FAA. The stakes for Honeywell are huge. Setting a de facto industry standard, it has a two-year head start on its competitors to switch every large airport in the world over from the current radar-based instrument-landing system (ILS) to its system.
It pegs the existing market at 2,178 airports worldwide. (Hundreds more are being built in China and India.) It expects SmartPath to be up and running at 600 airports by 2020 at a base price of $2.5 million apiece, producing $1.5 billion in revenue.
Here is how it works.
GBAS receives microwave signals from four to 13 GPS satellites. “The most difficult thing isn’t determining the plane’s GPS position, but ensuring SmartPath doesn’t cause any errors,” said Honeywell’s T.K. Kallenbach, who has refined the system so the chance of receiving erroneous data from even one satellite is essentially less than one in 10 million.
The heart of GBAS is the four GPS antennae mounted around the airport. Unlike radar, they are not prone to interference and can locate almost anywhere. The raw feed is accurate within 10 meters. The finished product, which includes data on every plane within a 23-mile radius, is precise to one meter.
Using the corrected coordinates, a VHF antenna broadcasts approach paths to the planes. These pass to an onboard multimode receiver.
The onboard multimode receiver, a black box, parses ILS radar, GBAS data, and the plane’s own GPS. “Imagine that it knows where you are, and it’s talking to the ground, which explains where it wants you to go,” Kallenbach said. “One continually updates the other.” The raw data translate to a pilot-friendly interface, and the pilot is not likely to notice many differences between GBAS and existing instrument landings. Training to land with GBAS does not require much time in the simulator.
The captain logs the approach path upon filing her flight plan. GBAS recognizes this and digitally broadcasts 26 separate paths to incoming planes and guides them in (ILS radios one). Some save fuel, while others reduce noise by weaving around neighborhoods. Smaller planes will be able to coast over the “wake turbulence” caused by engines ahead of them and land on shorter stretches of runway. The savings add up quickly.
The advantages of GBAS become more visible when the runway is not. With ILS, air-traffic control spaces planes more widely to account for its imprecision. Taxiing planes must also scoot back from the end of the runway to avoid interfering with radio beams. Honeywell estimates airports lose up to 25% of capacity during bad weather. GBAS renders moot all these causes for delays.
Nicholas Sheble (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes and edits Automation Update.
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