updated 07:05 pm EST, Wed February 8, 2012
GPS promised faster, more fuel efficient landings
The US Congress has passed a bill to give the FAA operational stability and to enable it to modernize how it handles planes in the air. The provisions of the bill will accelerate the migration from radar-based to GPS-based air traffic control. The act also makes it easier for unmanned drones to take to the skies.
The bill gives the FAA a $63.5 billion budget over the next four years. Its passage represents the end of a five year battle over funding of the agency and provides it some stability. Its last long term financing plan expired in 2007. Since then, it has been operating through 23 stopgap funding measures.
About 17 percent of the budget, $11 million, will go to modernizing the FAA's air traffic system. Currently the agency uses radar to show an aircraft's position. The radar refreshes the plane's location every six to twelve seconds. This means that the aircraft must use a stairstep method for its landing approach, where they stay at set altitudes for long periods before diving lower. It also means that planes must leave a significant distance between other planes on landing approaches. Either measure inefficient both in terms of time and fuel consumption.
The modernized GPS system gives air traffic controllers new aircraft position information every second. As such, aircraft can descend more gradually and steeply with their engines idled. It can space aircraft closer together, even in bad weather. If fully realized, the changes should lead to better capacity, less fuel consumption, and fewer needs to divert to another airport.
The bill requires that the 35 busiest airports in the US must have GPS-based landing systems in place by June 2015.
A separate provision of the bill gives non-manned drone aircraft access to US airspace. Currently, only the military, the US border patrol, and selected government agencies are authorized to use unmanned aircraft in specific areas outside of normal commercial airspace. The new guidelines, which must be in place by the end of September 2015, will allow the military, commercial and privately-owned unmanned airborne devices to fly the skies currently restricted to manned aircraft. [via AP]