ABOUTThe Honorable Tidal W. (Ty) McCoy is the former acting secretary and senior assistant secretary of the Air Force and a board member of the Cyber, Space, & Intelligence Association.That’s a noble charge, and one we can all support. But to hold firm to his pledge, Dickson and Congress are both going to have to ensure that proper investments are made to address glaring, costly, and dangerous technological deficiencies in our air traffic control system to move this critical piece of infrastructure into the 21st century.
As the former acting secretary of the Air Force I know a thing or two about the challenges facing our national airspace.Many of our air traffic controllers are relying on 50 year-old radar installations and antiquated equipment to safely guide passengers through our increasingly crowded skies. “There’s no resiliency and redundancy in the system so if something went wrong, there wouldn’t be backup,” William Ris, a member of the US Department of Transportation’s Management Advisory Council, told Transportation Today. Commercial airliners now carry 26 percent more passengers than they did just a decade ago, and flew over 1 trillion passenger miles for the first time ever in 2018. And the advent of new technologies is dramatically changing the makeup of our skies.The number of drones registered with the FAA tripled over the last three years, to 1.3 million. Local governments, law enforcement, and farmers are increasingly utilizing them to patrol neighborhoods and monitor crops and livestock. This tremendous growth in traffic will add even more complexity to a system that is already stretched thin. Tech companies such as Amazon and logistics giants UPS and FedEx have already made significant investments in drone delivery, and the technology has made real strides. But until the FAA is able to in turn adopt technologies that allow it to solve ongoing problems such as identifying drones and managing unmanned aircraft traffic, innovation in this space is likely to suffer.
Private air taxis, meanwhile, could be in flying as soon as 2023. While that date may seem like stretch, transporting humans in small aircrafts will still need to be monitored by the FAA, adding another new group of vehicles to the system in the next decade.
The WIRED Guide to Drones
The burgeoning private spaceflight industry could also be hampered by delayed air traffic control modernization. No less than six private companies are competing to launch humans into space, bringing us ever closer the dawn of space tourism. The FAA needs to plan for this reality.Taking into account all of these emerging flight technologies makes it clear that a more robust air traffic control system is urgently needed to keep order in the skies and maintain the forward momentum of America’s aerospace and tech innovators.
Yet in spite of this increased flying demand, funding uncertainty has plagued the FAA for years. Since 2007, Congress has passed 27 short-term funding extensions for the Agency, making it difficult to engage in long-term planning. This jeopardizes not only our safety, but also directly impacts the ability to bring these new technologies to market.The FAA has been working, since 2003, to update to the Next Generation Air Transportation System, which promises to make flying safer, more efficient, and more predictable, and has made some progress. Current ground-based radar technology limits the amount of usable airspace, exacerbates flight delays, and reduces flexibility in flight scheduling. But NextGen has stalled in recent years. Some NextGen features are already in effect, others have been delayed to 2030. Much more can be done with additional funding.
Technologies such as enhanced digital communications will allow pilots to receive immediate, digital flight plans, and incorporate data into their flight to make real-time adjustments. Other collaborative surface tools will allow controllers to safely decrease the distance between airplanes, adding much needed additional capacity in America’s most congested flying areas.Despite the promises NextGen holds for enhanced air travel, in February Congress cut the FAA’s 2019 budget by $549 million. What little money the FAA has in its accounts has been put toward modernization, but it is not nearly enough. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao recently announced millions of dollars in airport infrastructure grants, but as much as $14.8 billion is still needed to fully implement the NextGen system.