Next Generation Tech Puts Air Traffic Ahead Of The Weather

October 20, 2014 9:00 AM

Photo Credit Thinkstock

Photo Credit Thinkstock

This article is supplied by Raytheon

The passengers are standing at the gate and itching to board when the dreaded news comes down over the scratchy intercom, goes up on the monitors and sets mobile phones buzzing with alerts: There’s a storm somewhere, and nobody’s getting out of here any time soon.

Bad weather takes the blame for most air traffic delays, whether it’s a blizzard that is blanketing Buffalo in snow or a Midwestern summer storm that shoots lightning around the airspace. But technology is on the way to help air-traffic controllers work around the weather and keep more flights running on time. Raytheon is building those tools as part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s NextGen air traffic system.

“Two-thirds of air traffic delays are preventable with information available today,” said George Spencer, a manager at Raytheon’s Air Traffic Systems. “It’s a matter of gathering, processing and sending the information to the decision makers within the (national airspace) system. The right person with the right integrated information can have a positive impact on air traffic delays – including those due to inclement weather.”

Leading, not lagging

The tools aim to put pilots and air-traffic controllers ahead of the weather, rather than responding to it. They would provide up to eight hours’ notice of a flight-jeopardizing weather system, buying controllers much-needed time to re-route and reschedule traffic accordingly.

For example, a Miami-bound flight leaving from New York might now sit on the tarmac for hours if there’s a storm over the mid-Atlantic. But an eight-hour weather warning allows an air-traffic controller to find a new flight path and get the wheels up on schedule.

“NextGen is a huge step forward in bringing advanced technology to bear in the National Airspace System ,” said Mike Espinola, director of Raytheon Air Traffic Systems. “It brings the power of satellite technology, automation and predictive tools to manage the skies. Our airspace will become significantly more congested over the next decade, and it’s imperative that we find ways to build in efficiencies now.”

The technologies also will compile data profiles of each flight that include its GPS and radar location, its flight plan and predicted congestion of the airspace. That information, along with real-time weather and traffic data, will help controllers move planes through the system more efficiently through re-routing and traffic flow management.

“The ability to predict and plan versus just reacting to weather will create efficiencies in all sectors of the airspace and throughout all phases of flight,” Spencer said.

Much at stake

The implications are huge: Inclement weather caused nearly half the flight delays in January and 63 percent in June, according to the federal Department of Transportation’s Research and Innovative Technology Administration. Annually, delayed flights cost $40 billion a year, according to an estimate from the Congressional Joint Economic Committee.

Raytheon, with its long history of radar technology, will continue building tools to better manage the National Airspace System, Espinola said.

“We’ve leveraged our heritage in radars to bring enhanced accuracy to the system,” said Espinola. “Our goal is to find ways to improve the National Airspace System for the air traffic community so they can stay focused on their number one priority – safety.”