Modern passenger jets come fitted with high-tech flight decks, advanced engines and composite materials. But when they take to the sky, their pilots still rely on a traffic management system whose design dates 50 years back when Dwight D. Eisenhower was President. Pilots fly indirect paths over ground-based radio beacons and have “no information in advance exactly what the controller has in mind,” says Steve Fulton, technical fellow at GE Aviation. The controller, on the other hand, can’t predict pilots’ different flying styles. “You have two humans sharing a picture that neither one of them are sharing completely,” Fulton says.
The result is unpredictable flying paths, delays and waste. The National Center for Excellence for Aviation Operations Research estimated that the total cost of U.S. air transportation delays reached $32.9 billion in 2007. That’s why GE started building “highways in the sky,” digital systems and technology that allow planes to fly along precisely defined routes at maximum efficiency without relying on terrestrial radio navigation tools. The technology, which engineers and industry experts call Required Navigation Performance, or RNP, allows aircraft to burn less fuel, cut flying times, lower noise and reduce emissions.
The Big Picture: Precise satellite images such as this approach route to Queenstown Airport in New Zealand will add power to GE’s next generation aircraft navigation tools.
But to build a strong RNP system, you need good data. Last week, GE Aviation signed a contract with the satellite image purveyor GeoEye to capture precise 3D images of hundreds of airports. GeoEye can deliver photo resolution as sharp as 3 feet. The company’s images will help GE build detailed 3D airport models that include hills, towers, buildings and many other man-made obstacles. “You don’t need a cart and donkey going to the end of the world with survey equipment anymore,” says Giovanni Spitale, general manager of RNP projects at GE Aviation. Spitale’s team will have access to terabytes of data to build airport area models. “You can design your highway in the sky,” Spitale says.
GE has already rolled out hundreds of RNP elements in many countries, including the U.S., Canada, Australia, and China. In America, GE has launched a project studying the impact of the technology at 46 regional airports. The company calculated that RNP could save annually 12.9 million gallons of fuel, 747 days of travel time, and $65.6 million in operational costs. Not to mention countless headaches.