With an industry focused on reducing fuel burn, quieter noise profiles and more efficient use of limited airport and air traffic control resources, it is no surprise to learn that vendors are working on solutions to meet these needs. Honeywell Aerospace’s SmartPath product is the only next generation, FAA-certified solution in this space today and the company is working hard to change the time frame “from next generation to now generation” as it grows the number of operational airports and airplanes using the ground-based augmentation system (GBAS) to fly more efficient arrival paths and, eventually, tighter aircraft spacing.
The SmartPath system uses ground-based monitoring hardware and data communications integrated into the air traffic control signal to provide guidance to properly equipped airplanes. As Jared Louwagie, senior manager on the SmartPath project, explains, the “much tighter, higher integrity location data” on each approaching aircraft allows for improvements in nearly every aspect of aircraft the approach process.
Planes can fly smoother, shorter approach tracks, saving fuel and reducing noise over sensitive areas. The system can also allow multiple approach paths, depending on aircraft type. And for crowded airports that see a mix of large and small planes that require greater spacing for wake turbulence issues, the system has the ability to stage different glide paths for different-sized planes. Essentially, the smaller planes can approach outside of the wake turbulence rather than in the trail, allowing them to follow closer behind larger planes.
SmartPath is currently installed at seven major international airports around the world, offering CAT I landing guidance, which can supplant the traditional ILS systems for properly equipped aircraft. While this is well short of critical mass, it is enough to get the conversation started, especially with it being installed at more heavily used airports such as Frankfurt, Newark, Sydney and Zurich. As they are trying to add more landing slots and improve peak efficiency, these airports are hoping to take advantage of the service. Louwagie continued:
We’ve got the technology on the ground. We’ve got the technology in the air. The whole ecosystem needs to ask, ‘What are the benefits?’ and use this as an enabler to improve efficiency of the air transport system.
Of course, CAT I operation means generally good visibility and reduced likelihood of planes requiring extra spacing or other limiting factors. To get the most benefits, the system will need to be rated for CAT III operations where visibility is reduced to nil.
Honeywell is not there today, but is working toward that solution. It will require additional hardware on the airport side of the installations and upgrades to the onboard equipment as well, but it is an inline upgrade, not a full systems swap.
This means that airlines and airports can invest in the systems today and get the benefits now while upgrading easily as the improvements come. Unfortunately, the CAT III implementation will take some time; Honeywell expects it will be late 2018 for design approval and then build-out and implementation after that.
But it is coming. The company recently performed testing in cooperation with a Boeing 787 at the Moses Lake test facility, where it performed a dozen successful CAT III landings. These initial successful tests leave the company on track to get to the CAT III certification and ultimately to provide the more efficient operations necessary for airlines, airports and passengers to benefit. And as part of what can ultimately be a full “NextGen” upgrade of the global air traffic control network these technological improvements are most welcome.
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