OTTAWA—The aircraft symbols inch their way across the computer monitor — Air France 378 en route from Paris to Detroit; Delta 85, a Boeing 777 headed to Atlanta; and Lufthansa 412, an Airbus A350 flying Munich to Newark.
At first blush, there’s nothing exceptional about the air traffic control display — except for the piece of airspace it depicts.
Steve Bellingham, manager of navigation systems engineering for Nav Canada, the not-for-profit company that runs Canada’s air traffic control system, with a display showing the real-time position of commercial flights over the North Atlantic. The technology promises to revolutionize air traffic control by giving controllers information on aircraft in areas now out of view to ground-based radars, such as deserts, oceans and remote regions, like Canada’s far north. (Bruce Campion-Smith / Toronto Star)
These aircraft over the North Atlantic are far beyond the range of ground-based radar. What makes this real-time depiction of oceanic air traffic possible is a new constellation of satellites now orbiting the Earth, giving controllers a window on flights they’ve never had before.
It promises to revolutionize air traffic control, providing a view of air traffic in areas such as oceans, deserts, and mountainous and remote regions where ground-based radars are currently unable to provide surveillance.
With improved surveillance comes the promise of more efficient routing, potentially shorter trips and millions of dollars in fuel savings.
Ask staff at Nav Canada — the not-for-profit company that runs the country’s air traffic control system — for their opinion of the new technology and the superlatives spill out.
“It’s the greatest thing since the advent of radar,” spokesperson Ron Singer said.
In January, a SpaceX rocket carried the final 10 Iridium satellites into space, completing a constellation of 66 satellites and nine spares in low-earth orbit, to replace an existing network of communications satellites.
Aireon, a U.S. company, saw an opportunity to piggyback technology on the satellites that would be able to track aircraft from space.
The technology utilizes equipment — known as automatic dependent surveillance broadcast (ADS-B)— now being installed on aircraft that transmits GPS location, altitude, speed and other information.
Those signals are detected by satellites overhead, relayed to ground stations and on to air traffic control agencies.
Nav Canada is a partner in Aireon, along with the air traffic control operations in Ireland, the United Kingdom, Denmark and Italy. Other agencies are expected to sign on to use the technology to better manage air traffic in their regions.
At a Nav Canada technical centre at Ottawa airport, Steve Bellingham, manager navigation systems engineering for the company, walks a visitor through a demonstration.
On a computer display, he calls up a real-time display of air traffic in Canadian airspace using the satellite data and highlights flights over the ocean — where Nav Canada shares responsibility for air traffic control — and in Canada’s far north that until now has been out of view for controllers.
“These ones for sure we would not see,” he said. “It changes how you do your business.”
Ground-based radar has many limitations. It’s based on line of sight, meaning that anything beyond the horizon is lost to its electronic view. It requires antenna installations, which are costly to build and maintain.
But the main problem is that vast parts of the globe have no radar and hence there’s no accurate picture of the air traffic in these areas.
As a result, to keep aircraft safely separated in these areas, controllers resort to procedures using position reports sent from aircraft via datalink every five or 10 minutes.
It’s not unsafe. But it’s inefficient, with aircraft spaced far apart to provide an extra margin of safety. Space-based ATC will change all that.
“You know exactly where these guys are,” Bellingham said.
“You can have aircraft a lot closer here with confidence than you could when you only getting a report every few minutes.”
Having a more accurate depiction of air traffic will enable aircraft to fly closer together and thus increase the capacity of airspace. It will also allow controllers to better accommodate pilot requests for the best routing and altitude to reduce fuel burn, something that’s not always possible now.
It brings another benefit. Aircraft equipped with the technology will never be out of view, reducing the chances of another Malaysia Flight 370, which went missing in 2014 during a flight to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. It’s presumed to have crashed in the Indian Ocean but the exact site has never been found.
This month, Nav Canada will begin putting the space-based data to actual use, starting with controllers in Gander and Edmonton overseeing domestic airspace and as well over the North Atlantic in conjunction with the U.K. air traffic control agency.
“They’re now getting spooled up on how to take advantage of that space-based ADS-B to provide safe but efficient tracks,” Bellingham said of controllers.
“They’re going to do it phased but from day one, they’re going to be separating aircraft closer than they are today.”
Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier