Science: Highways among the clouds

IN THE crowded skies of Europe, air-traffic controllers try to keep aircraft five nautical miles (5.75mi, 9.3km) apart. Where the radar is less reliable, they play safer. According to Eurocontrol, 35 of the 51 European centres maintain 'radar separation' of 10 nautical miles or more. Aircraft are also supposed to keep a vertical distance of 1,000ft (300m).

With those rules, it is no wonder European skies are said to be congested. However, technology is already available that would allow more aircraft to fly in the same space without increasing the risk of accidents.

Using GPS (global positioning system), the accuracy of an aircraft's position can be pinned down to a few metres. Simple 3D geometry is used to work out how far away the aircraft is from four different satellites orbiting the earth. The system was used by the US in the Gulf war to guide 'smart bombs', and Japanese electronics companies use it in gadgets that sell for pounds 640 and guide cars around the labyrinthine streets of Tokyo.

If a single integrated computer system was added to keep track of aircraft positions, we would have the aerial equivalent of a modern city's road network. The basis of air-traffic control would change - and the controllers on the ground would be left out of the picture.

This will not happen for a while. First, the controllers are unlikely to carry on operating the present system submissively while they are being gradually computerised out of their jobs. (They earn 'more than a lawyer, but less than a dentist', according to one of the coy specialists at Eurocontrol.)

Second, satellites are risky. At present, their use could change at the whim of the US Department of Defense. Nobody knows under what circumstances the Pentagon might pull the plug, nor whether or how the system could be jammed by sabotage. The Americans are said to have carried out tests in Siberia with the Russians to prove that their rival satellite systems can work together - but that is little comfort.

Then there is the software problem. Millions of telephones in the United States have been put out of action for hours on end through undiscovered mistakes in computer programs. With the complexity of system necessary, the same might happen with air-traffic control. But instead of not being able to

call home, you could be stuck in the clouds 35,000ft above Geneva.

'I have two souls,' Wolfgang Philip, of Eurocontrol, says. 'As an engineer, I say it's possible. Psychologically, I know people wouldn't like it.' But Mr Philip thinks the new system will overcome its obstacles and probably be in operation by 2020.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk