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FAA Faces Challenges Getting Satellite-Based ATC System Off the Ground

FAA NextGen ERAM SystemThe FAA has already been encountering significant setbacks and budget overruns in its “NextGen” campaign to modernize the U.S. air traffic control system. Most recently, the busy agency has discovered that they may need to spend an extra $500 Million launching a major component that is already far behind schedule.

DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel wrote a letter to Congress this week that the FAA “faces several organizational, policy, logistical, and training challenges” in the completion and implementation of Lockheed Martin’s new GPS-based high-altitude Air Traffic Control system.

Completing the ERAM project, which the FAA had planned to have finished by the end of the year, could now take between 3 to 6 additional years, Scovel says. He added in his inspection findings that the cost escalation could force the agency “to reallocate funds from other modernization projects.” Unfortunately it will be a necessary move, as the Inspector General noted that over 200 problems have been found with the new software.

Lockheed Martin’s ERAM project will bring in more modern GPS technology to replace current ATC plane tracking systems which still rely on World War II-era radar technology. This upgrade will allow 20 air traffic-control centers to track 1,900 aircraft at once rather than 1,100. Postponing the upgrade will force the FAA to continue maintaining the aging radar equipment and to retrain air traffic controllers to use both the legacy radar systems and ERAM systems.

Scovel was bothered by the fact that the problem-laden computer program was able to pass the FAA’s initial testing. The FAA argues that many of the bugs discovered could only be encountered in a live environment. When the system was first activated in Salt Lake City last April, flaws in the software forced controllers to rely on numerous workarounds that increased their fatigue and distracted them from managing air traffic.

FAA spokesperson Sasha Johnson said in a statement that controllers are once again using the system to handle traffic in Salt Lake City and that testing “continues to go well” at other testing facilities. The FAA plans to release a new deployment schedule for the system in the coming weeks.

The DOT Inspector General mentioned, however, that in order to successfully migrate to the new higher-tech system, the FAA will have to reach out to and effectively work across “diverse agency lines of business — including its Aircraft Certification Service, Flight Standards Service, and Air Traffic Organization — which it has not done effectively in the past.” He remarked that the FAA will also need to assess the safety of “new, complex runway configurations” at a number of major airports.

On the bright side, when the FAA’s NextGen modernization program is complete, the aerospace industry should see improvements in both efficiency, economy, and environmental impact as planes will have to burn less fuel in general. In addition to the pinpoint accuracy of GPS versus radar, the new system should provide faster routes and allow more planes to safely cruise at high altitudes.

Further, the ERAM system is being designed with an open architecture, which basically means that it will be much easier to add onto in the future as traffic grows and better technology emerges — in addition to creating a generally more supportable and stable ATC system.

FAA Video: Navigation at the Crossroads

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  1. 12 / 27 / 2010 9:59 am

    “Aviation is transitioning to satellite based technology” …… GPS versus radar is our future! Great article and video :)


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