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July 11, 2001

Jonas Diño

NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA

Phone: 650/604-5612, 650/604-9000



Keeping up with aircraft flying over the Gulf of Mexico is difficult, if not impossible, in some instances. Now that may change, with the help of NASA and the Department of Transportation (DOT), which are testing a new in-flight tracking system that is smaller, less costly and more flexible than anything seen to date.

The Advanced Air Transportation Technologies (AATT) project led by NASA's Ames Research Center located in California's Silicon Valley and the DOT's Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, Cambridge, MA, is putting the new system through its paces in Louisiana, offshore from Intercoastal City. The current testing is designed to evaluate the operational benefits of the system for fleet management in the Gulf.

The in-flight tracking system uses multiple small ground stations to triangulate on an aircraft's transponder signal, accurately determining its position. "Radar coverage, particularly at low altitudes, is non-existent over most of the Gulf of Mexico. The in-flight tracking system will provide operators with precise aircraft position data. The data from the tests will be evaluated by operators as a possible flight tracking system," said Mike Landis, AATT project manager at Ames.

The tracking system addresses many of the drawbacks of beacon radar systems currently used for air traffic control. The system's smaller size, enhanced flexibility and reduced cost permit ground stations to be placed in areas that are not feasible for beacon radar. This includes remote areas, open water and mountainous terrain. These characteristics make the system particularly suitable for tracking low-flying aircraft that cannot be monitored adequately by standard radar systems.

"These tests will provide the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) with data they can use in determining how the new system compares with radar," Landis said. "We believe the new system may have significant cost, size and flexibility advantages over currently available systems," he added.

The FAA and aviation users are evaluating the deployment of Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), which is based on all aircraft transmitting their position reports (based on the Global Positioning System) to surveillance systems in the area.

The tracking system is based on equipment originally developed by the Sensis Corporation, DeWitt, NY, for the FAA's Airport Surface Detection Equipment, Mode X (ASDE-X) program. The role of the DOT is to manage deployment of the system and conduct a technical assessment for NASA.

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