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Free Flight: An Internet for the Skies


In the late 1990s, NASA researchers figured it was time to address the growing hazards, headaches, and inefficiencies of commercial flight. What they dreamed up was a kind of Internet in the skies: Planes would use new computers and communications gear to trade precision navigation data--enabling them to avoid midair collisions automatically--and to plot the shortest, most efficient routes to their destinations. The idea was dubbed Free Flight. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) endorsed it in 1998.

NASA figured Free Flight could help relieve congestion at big airports by engendering high-tech systems that would permit small air-taxi planes to be on call at small airports all the time, even in bad weather. But the air-taxi notion is just one part of the Free Flight concept, which is now gaining currency in commercial-aviation circles.

One of the important players in Free Flight is Rockwell Collins Inc. (COL), a Cedar Rapids (Iowa) supplier of electronic systems to the airlines and the Pentagon. The company was spun off in 2001 from Rockwell Automation Inc. Hit by the continuing slump in U.S. aviation, Rockwell Collins projects revenues of about $2.6 billion in fiscal 2003, ending Sept. 30. That would be a slight gain from its $2.5 billion sales in fiscal 2002 but still 7% less than 2001's $2.8 billion. CEO Clayton M. "Clay" Jones, 53, gave senior writer Otis Port the lowdown on some of the progress in Free Flight for commercial aviation.

Q: Will Free Flight help trim the time that business travelers spend getting from place to place?

A: The FAA's Operational Evolution Plan for dealing with air-travel delays, which was released a few months before 9/11, looks at most of the work related to Free Flight. Basically, the goal is to use as many Free Flight technologies as possible to help improve capacity by 30% by the end of the decade.

Q: But isn't air traffic supposed to grow that much by then?

A: That's exactly right. In fact, when the FAA published the plan, some critics said 30% was good, but not good enough. But because of September 11 and the economic downturn, the capacity shortfall may not increase as rapidly as had been forecast. So we've been given a little breathing room. If we keep on pace with the Free Flight programs, we should be able to enhance the capacity of the system and reduce the problems that seemed inevitable a year or two ago.

Q: Give me an example of what's coming.

A: A great one for us is synthetic vision. We're developing a system that will enable pilots to see through fog and clouds and inclement weather in general. Our Synthetic Vision Information System should reduce accidents related to poor visibility--for example, crashes into mountains obscured by clouds. Such accidents have been the main cause of commercial-aviation fatalities since about 1980. One reason is that, when flying in low-visibility conditions, pilots can be so preoccupied with interpreting numbers and symbols on cockpit instruments that they lose track of where they are.

Q: How does synthetic vision work?

A: It uses GPS [global positioning satellite] data to precisely locate a plane, including its altitude, and our system combines that with a digital three-dimensional map of what lies in the plane's path. The pilot can see a video-game-like image of what lies ahead. Near airports, we now have 3-D maps so detailed that we believe pilots can even land with just synthetic vision--no radar guidance. That's still in the experimental and test stage with NASA. Our partners on this include Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, American Airlines, and Boeing. And we're confident that we'll have an FAA-certified system in two or three years.

Q: This is for commercial airliners?

A: Actually, the Air Force is aggressively testing synthetic vision and has already completed more than 20 hours of flight tests. Corporate aircraft also are likely users. CEOs don't like to be denied access to an airport because of the weather. But if you're an airline, you're probably buying equipment for multiple airplanes, and you're going to take the time to be sure the investment makes sense.

Q: What else is in the works?

A: Another important effort is a new system called Controller Pilot Data Link Communications. American Airlines is the lead company on the airline side, and we're the lead on the hardware side. It's already in use at the Miami Air Traffic Control Center. The system can transmit a lot more operational data via digital-data links, not voice links. That means ground controllers can get quicker updates on a plane's situation without having to contact the pilot and without any chance of misunderstanding what the pilot says.

There's also a new air-separation system called ADS-B, for Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast. Here, the airplane regularly broadcasts its position and flight path--not only its altitude and speed but also where it intends to go, both horizontally and vertically. Since other planes can also receive these broadcasts, their onboard computers will be able to alert pilots in plenty of time if there's a looming conflict.

ADS-B is already being used on a trial basis for cargo flights in the Ohio Valley. FedEx [Corp.] (FDX) and UPS [United Parcel Service Inc.] (UPS) want to use it to manage all the cargo planes coming into Louisville and Memphis in the middle of the night.

Q: Where are the Europeans in all this?

A: Actually, the Europeans have been much more aggressive in putting Free Flight technologies into place. For example, they have already instituted a preferred-airspace mandate that requires GPS navigation equipment. If you want to fly above 24,000 feet, an airplane must have GPS equipage. Eurocontrol [counterpart of the FAA] reasons that, if you have GPS, they can direct you point-to-point more efficiently. You can choose not to have GPS, but then you're going to have to fly at a less efficient altitude. So it's your choice: You can either pay for more fuel to fly at a lower altitude, or you can pay for a GPS system.

They've done the same thing [for flights] over the Atlantic Ocean. A year ago, to increase capacity for transatlantic flights, Eurocontrol cut the vertical separation from 2,000 feet to 1,000 feet. The reason for the 2,000-foot minimum was that traditional barometric-based altimeters become less accurate at higher altitudes. But altitude doesn't affect GPS technology. So if you want to fly with other planes that are vertically separated by just 1,000 feet, you've got to have accurate altitude equipment.

Q: Why do you think Europe is ahead?

A: Our country doesn't like mandates, or even semi-mandates. Our country likes consensus, and consensus is always difficult to do. In addition, air travel has recovered much more quickly in Europe than here in the U.S.

Q: Does the technology have a role in dealing with hijackings?

A: We have demonstrated a video surveillance system to provide the flight crew with information about emergency situations in the cabin without opening the cockpit door. The system also has the capability to alert ground controllers and allow them to see what's happening inside a plane. However, until the airlines can afford to invest in this kind of technology, we're not going to develop it further.

Q: Do you see this stuff migrating down into small planes?

A: Some of it may even begin in small planes. For example, ADS-B technology is being tested in general aviation aircraft [small planes] in Alaska, which is one of the last bastions of uncontrolled air space. Because of the mountainous terrain, the extreme weather, and the lack of radar, it's the perfect place to test how aircraft can avoid each other using onboard equipment.

Q: Could we get to the point where planes essentially fly themselves, from takeoff to landing?

A: That might be feasible in the distant future, when all the Free Flight technologies are in hand. Meanwhile, this will evolve, to freer and freer flight, over the next 10, 15, 20 years. Don't expect to wake up one morning soon and find Free Flight a done deal.


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