Washington: Researchers have developed a reconfigurable radio that could help air traffic controllers see in real-time the location of every plane in the air -- even those flying across oceans.
To design and develop the new reconfigurable, higher-bandwidth radio, NASA worked with Palm Bay, Florida-based Harris Corporation.
With real-time global tracking, planes could fly with less space between them and take more direct routes.
"It tremendously improves public safety and potentially saves a lot of fuel costs, because you no longer have to remain in the particular airline traffic lanes," said Jeff Anderson from Harris Corporation.
The biggest selling point of the new device, which Harris sells as the AppSTAR, turned out to be its flexibility.
With hardware and software both fully reconfigurable, the company could quickly and cheaply redesign the radio to fit any customer's needs, Harris programme manager Kevin Moran explained.
The company has already entered into contracts with Virginia-based Aireon LLC that will use the radios to create the first space-based global air traffic control system.
With Aireon flight tracking, powered by a radio developed by Harris Corporation, researchers hope that air traffic control agencies will be able to see in real time the location and heading of every plane in the air.
For decades, airplanes have relied on radar surveillance via land-based radar stations. That has left huge gaps ? particularly over oceans ? where air traffic controllers have no real-time information.
To compensate, pilots file detailed flight plans and are required to remain within prescribed lanes at different altitudes so air traffic controllers can estimate where they are and work to ensure there are no mid-air collisions.
But that could change when a constellation of 66 satellites, owned by Iridium Communications Inc., goes into orbit equipped with AppSTAR radios.
The radios are programmed to receive signals from new airplane transceivers called ADS-B, which automatically send out a flight's number, location, heading and other details.
"Within seconds you can keep track of all the aircraft in the world," Anderson noted.
Aireon has already signed contracts with a number of air traffic control agencies to integrate the space-based system into their flight tracking when the system goes live in 2018.
A reconfigurable is also useful for NASA engineers.
"A reconfigurable radio lets engineers change how the radio works throughout the life of (any space mission)," Thomas Kacpura, Advanced Communications Programme Manager at NASA's Glenn Research Center, explained in an official statement.
"It can also be upgraded to work better with future missions or to enhance performance, just by adding new software," Kacpura added.