When I travel, it is usually for work. Right now the heavy summer travel season is winding down. Yet, the planes are full with students heading off to college. Between squeezing in the last vacation of the summer and students going to college, the planes were full and so were the airports, including the El Paso International Airport. Crowded skies will continue to be part of the travel experience, and the FAA is working to perfect a new system to manage the increased air traffic called NextGen.
The El Paso Airport is next to Fort Bliss, the home of the U.S. Army Air Defense Artillery (ADA) School and four combat brigades. A brigade usually numbers 2,000 people, so we could be hosting up to 8,000 military personnel coming here to use the airspace. The El Paso Airport and Fort Bliss share the air space corridor between Mexico and White Sands Missile Range. This narrow corridor is open to Commercial Aviation and the General Aviation community that also flies from the El Paso Airport. The airspace must also accommodate the needs of the Army aircraft including helicopter and UAV traffic.
As part of my work as the Administrative Lead for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation (COE-CST) at NMSU, I recently took a guided tour of the El Paso Airport. It was during this tour, I learned how much more air traffic this airport will handle in next ten years. I believe the Airport Manager told me they handled about 10,000 aircraft last year. He expects a significant jump in air traffic in the near future.
To anticipate the national and global air traffic demands, the FAA is transforming the national air transportation system. The transformation agenda may involve Spaceport America because I plan to have New Mexico students help with the research during our next launch.
The FAA Fact Sheet on NextGen describes the program, “as a wide ranging transformation of the entire national air space to meet future demands and avoid gridlock in the sky and in the airports. It moves away from legacy ground based technologies to a new and more dynamic satellite based technology.” The air traffic control towers may one day be replaced with tracking control centers that use satellites to keep track of aircraft. One of the tracking technologies for aircraft in the Next Gen System is the Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B).
(ADS-B) is the future of air traffic control. The ADS-B signals will provide air traffic controllers and pilots with much more accurate information that will help keep aircraft safely separated in the sky and on runways it uses GPS satellite. Aircraft transponders receive GPS signals and use them to determine the aircraft’s precise position in the sky, which is combined with other data and broadcast out to other aircraft and air traffic control facilities. When properly equipped with ADS-B, both pilots and controllers will, for the first time, see the same real-time displays of air traffic, substantially improving safety. There is no doubt, as more planes crowd the available air space, we will need rapid, real-time tracking capability to assure safety of the flying public.
The ADS-B is a small instrument, about the size of the old satellite phone. We hope to fly one for the FAA as part of our work on the Center of Excellence. It will be on the rocket for our next student launch from Spaceport America in March of 2012. We use White Sands Missile Range to track our rocket. We will still use WSMR but will also have the ADS-B data to compare to our radar track. This is a great opportunity for students and New Mexico to lead again in this commercial space transportation industry. We are likely going to be using ADS-B in the future and challenging most of the assumptions of regular classes of air space. When Virgin Galactic flies from Spaceport America, they will be flying through the airspace to space and coming back from space into the air space. This new type of travel may require possibly a new classification of airspace, maybe Class S. This classification would provide no hand off as the vehicle travels from ground to space and back again. It will be tracked entirely by satellite. This idea is one of the many concepts discussed last week during the COE-CST meeting in Washington, D.C. you can learn more about the NextGen system on the http://www.faa.gov/nextgen/, and the Center of Excellence at http://www.coe-cst.org/ or dowload the FAA NextGen Implementation plan here.