Science: Highways among the clouds
Monday 10 August 1992
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.
- 1 Which country would be hardest to invade?
- 2 The man who filmed the Freddie Gray video has been arrested at gunpoint
- 4 Floyd Mayweather's mouthguard costs $25,000 - enough to fly to Las Vegas and back 18 times
- 5 Royal baby girl born: Duchess of Cambridge's second child will be a princess thanks to Queen
Which country would be hardest to invade?
Morgan Freeman on the riot-focused coverage of the Baltimore protests: 'F**k the media'
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
The man who filmed the Freddie Gray video has been arrested at gunpoint
Nepal earthquake: Many survivors receiving no help despite relief effort
Over 50,000 families shipped out of London boroughs in the past three years due to welfare cuts and soaring rents
EU asylum policy is 'a direct threat to our civilisation', says Nigel Farage
Indonesia executions live: 'Hysterical' families heard prisoners being shot dead by firing squad
General Election 2015: SNP and its activists 'openly racist' towards the English, Farage says
EU exit would hit UK economy much harder than neighbouring countries, study finds
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...
£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...
£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...
£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...