Big sky, big picture

Raytheon technology is modernizing the National Airspace System

A single-engine plane buzzes the compact, Raytheon-made, low-power radar during a recent flight-check demonstration.

A single-engine plane buzzes the Raytheon's compact low-power radar during a recent flight-check demonstration.

The skies are crowded.

While the airspace has remained unchanged, there are more aircraft and more types of aircraft flying in the National Airspace System in the U.S. than ever before. The rise of drones alone is astronomical with civilian-owned unmanned aircraft systems registered with the FAA reaching more than 1 million in 2018, which includes nearly 900,000 for recreational use.

If left unchecked, this congestion could cause safety issues and flight delays. Fortunately, Raytheon has technologies to help mitigate these problems.

"We're seeing a lot more aircraft and a wider variety — some big, some small, some that go fast, some that don't — and these present a challenge for air traffic controllers because they all want to fly to the same places," said Kip Spurio, Raytheon managing director of air traffic systems. "We need new technology for a more complicated sky. Raytheon has those special tools that will help the FAA and controllers deconflict aircraft and help create separation between aircraft, getting passengers safely to their destinations on time."

Spurio highlighted several products that Raytheon will showcase at the 63rd Air Traffic Control Association Annual Conference and Exposition, Sept. 30 to Oct. 3, in National Harbor, Maryland.

Reach for the STARS

The Standard Terminal Automation Modernization and Replacement System, or STARS for short, is used by air traffic controllers at airports and Terminal Radar Approach Control facilities to monitor and direct air traffic up to 60 miles around airports and up to 14,000 feet in the air.

The STARS program receives radar data and flight plan information and in-turn presents those specifics to air traffic controllers, so they can monitor, control and accept hand-off of air traffic. Through airports and TRACON sites, STARS handles approximately 80 percent of the air traffic in the United States and is used at 68 sites including many of the world’s busiest airports.

"STARS is building a safer airspace by giving controllers a more complete. precise picture of the airspace from a single platform," Spurio said. "STARS is a replacing all of the FAA's old analog, single color, round displays. It’s new and expandable, really setting the FAA up for future modernization."

Spurio explained that STARS serves as the framework and infrastructure for apps that can be built on top of it.

"It's like buying a new iPhone; you need to add all the latest and greatest apps to really take advantage of its processing power," Spurio said. "STARS will allow the FAA to add apps and enhancement packages down the road to make the controller's life better and more efficient."

Low Power, High Performance

Raytheon's Low Power Radar is a one-meter square Active Electronically Scanned Array, or AESA, software-defined radar unit. While it was originally designed to be networked together to provide high-definition weather monitoring at all altitudes, LPR is so versatile that it can be used for multiple missions and applications.

"Besides weather, we have customers interested in networking these on cell towers and buildings every 20 miles or so to monitor small drone traffic," Spurio said. "We have another customer that's interested in using it for precision approach control, because you just need one LPR, which you can set up very quickly, allowing controllers to know precisely where aircraft are so they can talk pilots down in bad weather. It also can be used for area surveillance at all altitudes."

Not only is LPR capable of completing all of these missions, it can also do them simultaneously. Unlike mechanically scanned radars that use rotating dishes, active phased array radar offers adaptive beam scanning, which can track 100 times more targets and interleave between different radar applications.

"It also has no moving parts, so LPRs are more reliable and easier to maintain, which gives them a longer lifetime and less upkeep costs," Spurio said.

'See and Avoid' Remotely

By 2021, the FAA projects that there could be 4 million drones in the hands of hobbyists and commercial users. One rule that all users in the National Airspace System must follow whether they're flying in the cockpit or with the joystick is they must "see and avoid" other aircraft and obstacles. This proves to be difficult when you're flying a drone because you can quickly lose sight of a small quadcopter once it reaches higher altitudes or when it's obscured by obstacles like trees or buildings.

The U.S. Air Force found the FAA's "see and avoid" restriction especially challenging because they needed to fly their unmanned aircraft systems, like the Global Hawk and Predator, from their U.S. bases to their nearby ranges, but often had to cross 20 to 30 miles of civilian airspace.

"The Air Force used to have to resort to ground spotters every couple of miles or so as well as having chase planes follow the drone, which wasn't very practical," Spurio said. "Then we modified STARS so that it could use radar data to alert Air Force drone pilots of any obstacles. It's called Ground-Based Detect and Avoid — the only system certified by the FAA to fly drones beyond visual line of sight."

The systems are located at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, and Beale Air Force Base, California.

"We've also got a system housed in a bus that we could drive anywhere the Air Force wants it," Spurio said. "We can even tow a Low Power Radar behind us, and then set it up as our surveillance source."

Last Updated: 10/08/2018