Wednesday, May 8, 2013


There are many uses for the GPS data in and out of the aircraft. The GPS location is very accurate, normally. Knowing where the aircraft thinks it is can help ATC in many instances.

Shortcomings of RADAR

RADAR will send out a radio signal in a cone shape. The farther the aircraft is from the antenna, the larger the target will appear on the radar screen. The location displayed to the air traffic controller isn't as accurate when the aircraft is far from the antenna. The RADAR cannot "see" straight up either, so if the aircraft flies directly over the antenna, the software has to guess where the aircraft will be.

RADAR can only get range and azimuth information. The RADAR cannot determine altitude. Altitude information is sent from the aircraft in  the transponder message. When the aircraft transponder hears the RADAR interrogation, the transponder responds with the transponder code and altitude (with mode-s, there may be more information).

Most short range RADAR has about a 5 second sweep. The long range radars have a 12 second sweep. The sweep time is how long the RADAR antenna takes to turn once. The sweep time is how long it takes between aircraft updates. If the aircraft is going 600knots, and the sweep is 12 seconds, the aircraft moves about 2 miles between sweeps. 

The RADAR software has to do some correlations between the raw RADAR range and  azimuth information, and the transponder code altitude message. Usually, there is only one aircraft that comes into RADAR range at a time at the same point, so it is easy to correlate this, but occasionally two targets may appear at different altitudes at the same place. The software will occasionally get this wrong.

Why ADS/B is Better

ABS/B out messages from the aircraft will usually be the same quality. The GPS accuracy will be pretty consistent in an area, and be very accurate. The target drawn on the air traffic controllers screen will be the same size as the target moves across the screen.

The ADS/B message will contain both location and altitude information in a single message. The software will not need to correlate that data. During times when the ADS/B aircraft are operating in the RADAR environment, correlation will still be done with the raw RADAR and the transponder messages. The ADS/B information will only make correlation more accurate.

The ADS/B location is broadcast about once a second. The controllers screen will update every time it hears the ADS/B signal.

ADS/B will broadcast to the aircraft in the area without relying on ground station. The FAA having two frequencies, 978MHz and1090ES almost requires a ground station for ADS/B to work. There are other benefits to the ground stations, in that they will broadcast weather (FIS/B) and traffic (TIS/B) from non-participating aircraft.


In most of this and previous articles I have hesitated on specifying the accuracy of GPS location information. GPS accuracy changes during the day, and in certain locations. The current accuracy is defined as Actual Navigation Performance (ANP) and is measured in miles. Sometimes the ANP will be down to feet in all directions, sometimes it will be in miles.

To fly a GPS approach it is necessary to have an ANP of 0.3 miles or better. 0.3 miles means the receiver is able to pinpoint it's position to less than 1500 feet. The 0.3 mile value is called the Required Navigation Performance (RNP). To fly with any more precision, special training is needed. The FAA has many public RNP approaches with levels as low as 0.1 miles, or about 500ft.

This sounds pretty sloppy, 500ft is bigger than 10 houses.  Remember, the GPS receiver is calculating where it was when it heard the last update from the satellite, but the aircraft is carrying that receiver at 150-200kts on final.  The receiver is throwing values into the Kalman filter as fast as it can, and guessing that the pilot won't turn more that 3 degrees per second, assuming a mostly straight course.  It ain't easy, 500ft is pretty good.

Many commercial aircraft display the ANP and RNP values at the bottom of the navigation display. The display on a 737 is the instrument on the left (see slightly above this link).

NextGen future

There is a lot to NextGen technologies. Alaska has been playing with ADS/B since the late 1990's. The FAA is financing more Capstone work in Alaska even in the time of sequestering. Much of the enroute NextGen requires ERAM, but that is still in process, and is partially on hold until the FAA gets their financial situation in order.

The FAA is currently wanting to require all aircraft to participate in ADS/B out by 2020. There will be some challenges to that. With the current financial situation and things being on hold, will the FAA be ready for all aircraft to be using ADS/B? What about the Luscome 8F that never had an alternator, what will it use to power the GPS and transmitter needed? What will the FAA use to track aircraft with electrical failure?

Some airlines are equipping their aircraft with RNP and ADS/B. Some have had a challenge reaping the benefits from the upgrades. The other airlines are waiting until some indication they will reap some benefits. The FAA and the airlines are still trying to figure out the best time to move forward.

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