The Federal Aviation Administration today said it awarded three massive contracts totaling up to $4.4 billion over 10 years to build out the future, oft-times controversial air traffic control network known as NextGen or the Next Generation Air Transportation System.
The FAA said Boeing, General Dynamics and ITT were awarded the contracts worth up to $4.4 billion. Two more contracts are expected under what's known as Systems Engineering 2020 (SE-2020) which is the overarching portfolio of contracts the FAA will award to support the rollout of NextGen. SE2020 has a ceiling of $7 billion.
Boeing, General Dynamics and ITT will conduct large-scale demonstrations, including the use of aircraft as flying laboratories, to see how NextGen concepts, procedures and technologies can be integrated into the current system, the FAA stated.
The FAA said it will work with these companies and others to develop and demonstrate new procedures in four dimensions, adding the element of time to the current three-dimensional profile of an aircraft's latitude, longitude and altitude.
By introducing the concept of time to the NextGen profile, pilots and air traffic controllers will know not only where an aircraft is with greater precision but when the aircraft is supposed to be there. Unlike the current system of "roads in the sky," 4-D operations will allow aircraft to fly from Point A to Point B more directly, while taking into consideration factors such as heavy traffic and bad weather, the FAA stated.
Boeing, General Dynamics and ITT will also develop modernized weather services. NextGen weather imaging will let pilots and controllers see bad weather stratified by different altitudes, giving them a more detailed and accurate picture of severe weather conditions. The improved information also means that pilots and controllers won't have to interpret weather information, allowing them to plan safer routes, the FAA stated.
The technology behind NextGen will ultimately revamp every component of the flight control system meet future demands and avoid gridlock in the sky.
In 2009 for example, the FAA began implementing one of the key components of NextGen. Specifically the FAA gave the green light to deploy satellite tracking systems nationwide replacing the current radar-based approach.
The new system would let air traffic controllers track aircraft using a satellite network using a system known as Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B), which is ten times more accurate than today's radar technology. ADS-B is part of the FAA's wide-reaching plan known as NextGen to revamp every component of the flight control system meet future demands and avoid gridlock in the sky.
ADS-B promises a ten-fold increase in the accuracy of satellite signals that will let air traffic controllers reduce separation standards between aircraft, significantly increasing the number of aircraft that can be safely managed in the nation's skies, the FAA said. The agency said when properly equipped with ADS-B, both pilots and controllers will, for the first time, see the same real-time displays of air traffic, improving safety.
Air traffic is projected to grow from 740 million passengers last year to one billion in 2015, and double today's levels by 2025, the FAA said.
The FAA in Oct. 2007 proposed all aircraft flying in the nation's busiest airspace have to have satellite-based avionics by 2020.
The entire NextGen project is not without challenges or detractors.
A Government Accountability Office report earlier this year noted of few of the challenges the FAA faces: In addition to leadership and structural issues, stakeholders and representatives of partner agencies identified broad challenges that affect the extent to which some partner agencies have coordinated with others. These challenges include (1) limited funding and staffing to dedicate to NextGen activities, (2) competing mission priorities, and (3) undefined near-term roles and responsibilities of some partner agencies.
NextGen is an enormously complex undertaking that requires new integrated systems, procedures, aircraft performance capabilities, and supporting infrastructure to create an air transportation system that uses satellite-based surveillance and navigation and network-centric operations. NextGen is intended to improve the efficiency and capacity of the air transportation system so that it can accommodate anticipated future growth. By 2025, air traffic is projected to increase up to three times the current level, the GAO stated.
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