The plane sat on the tarmac in Washington, D.C., for three hours, waiting for the weather to clear. Not there, and not in its destination of Chicago, but 180 miles to the southeast in Indianapolis.
Every time Kip Spurio hears that kind of story – his daughter-in-law was on the flight – it reminds him why he and his colleagues are working on a way to make long, frustrating weather delays a thing of the past – or at least far less common.
It’s called four-dimensional trajectory, and its widespread use would fundamentally change the way air traffic management works, according to Spurio, the technical director of air traffic systems for Raytheon Intelligence & Space, a Raytheon Technologies business.
Right now, air traffic controllers use a plane’s real-time altitude, longitude and latitude to keep it a safe distance from bad weather, and from other aircraft. With four-dimensional trajectory, also called 4DT, they’ll add the dimension of time into those calculations – enabling them to separate aircraft based not just on where they are, but on where they will be at any point in their flight.
Four-dimensional trajectory, Spurio said, would improve decision-making at places like the FAA’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center in Warrenton, Virginia, where controllers manage the strategic flow of thousands of flights across the U.S. National Airspace System. They monitor and respond to changes in capacity, such as runway closures; airspace restrictions such as an Air Force One flight; equipment outages on the ground, and, of course, weather.
“They have to have all the information – what airports are available, what the landing rate at Chicago is. They have to know all that. But because their systems aren’t set up to do things based on a four-dimensional trajectory, their remedies to problems in the system are fairly coarse,” Spurio said.
That, Spurio said, is why his daughter-in-law’s plane sat on the ground for so long. Without knowing exactly when the plane would reach the weather over Indianapolis, and where the bad weather would be at that time, air traffic control simply kept it on the ground in D.C. until the storm cleared.
“In the future, you should be able to take off from Washington just in time so that the weather is just leaving Indianapolis when you get there,” he said.
Machine learning will be a key factor in bringing four-dimensional trajectory into practice, as will the update of flight-management systems, training for pilots, and the pending overhaul of the FAA’s telecommunications systems. That initiative, known as the FAA Enterprise Network Services Program, or FENS, will replace a 20-year-old system with a commercial-style infrastructure built for handling, analyzing and sharing large volumes of data.
Raytheon Intelligence & Space and Collins Aerospace are teaming to pursue the contract. Raytheon Intelligence & Space has expertise in integrating networks of similar size and importance – namely the GPS Next-Generation Operational Control System and the Joint Polar Satellite System Common Ground System. Collins is the largest private network provider in aviation.
The businesses are also collaborating on air traffic management technologies that will optimize routing, enable more efficient use of the airspace and make air traffic management operations more resilient with greater redundancy. Those technologies will draw on Collins' expertise in airborne weather radar, route optimization and collision avoidance, and Raytheon Intelligence & Space's deep knowledge of ground-based air traffic management systems.
Among those initiatives: Collins will incorporate elements of its Airborne Collision Avoidance Systems to enhance the capabilities of Raytheon Intelligence & Space's Ground Based Detect and Avoid system.