Travel Log – Radar vs. GPS

February 15, 2011

-By Joshua Resnek

Like most of us who fly frequently, I tend not to give a moment’s thought about my safety once I’m past security and seated comfortably inside the plane.

Then comes the take-off and the strong feeling of all that thrust and power pushing me deeper into my seat. Then the plane goes up, up into the sky literally.

At 50,000 feet, passing through time and space at 600 miles per hour and feeling as though I’m not moving is a different kind of rush and other than to think about the physics of all that, I don’t give my safety a thought.

The skies are wide. The skies are crowded with aircraft. But by and large, the skies are safe.

Aircraft flying in American airspace are tracked by radar.

American aircraft are tracked by American air traffic controllers by radar all over the world.

Enter GPS monitoring systems like those some of us have in our automobiles.

GPS tracking is the wave of the future.

Radar will one day be replaced with GPS systems on the ground, inside aircraft and wherever it might best be used to create a seamless and safe flying environment.

To the experts and for the Federal Aviation Administration, GPS systems are referred to in their lingua franca as next gen – next generation air traffic control systems.

They are the wave of the future and in some instances, the future is already here.

It is here at Logan Airport where Massport has adapted by placing GPS technology on all of its automobiles for safety reasons while they’re on the airfield and runways especially during inclement weather and low visibility.

This way, Massport has the capability of tracking the whereabouts of all its vehicles all the time, 24/7 on a computer.

The FAA has the same ability to track Massport’s vehicles if they incorporate Massport’s data into their GPS system.

Replacing the nation’s radar tracking systems with GPS systems is another matter entirely.

The United States has more airports and more aircraft on the ground and in the air at any one time than nearly all the nation’s of the world.

Tracking all that movement with radar is one thing.

Replacing it all with GPS systems is another.

“Ground based radar will be replaced by GPS systems. It will be primarily GPS in the air – aircraft will be using GPS which will replace ground based radar,” said FAA spokesperson Jim Peters.

“But this isn’t something that can be achieved overnight. It will take years to institute GPS as the new system by which we track our aircraft,” he added.

Peters said the government had already set a time frame for the system wide conversion.

He also warned that the changes to be made included so many aircraft and so many airports and included as well the retraining of so many personnel and pilots that GPS systems implemented fully would be a long time coming.

In the meantime, air traffic controllers using tried and true radar preside over a nationwide – indeed – preside over a worldwide aircraft tracking system entirely based on radar.

Those familiar with converting from radar to GPS claim that it must all be done at one time uniformly, a near impossible task for a nation with such a complicated and sprawling air travel system.

“But it will be done,” said Peters of the FAA.