Without NASA, SATS needs more industry involvement

 - September 21, 2006, 7:52 AM

The Small Airplane Transportation System (SATS) demonstration came to what most consider a successful conclusion last summer with demonstration flights and exhibits in Danville, Va., but where the technology goes from here is anybody’s guess.

NASA participation essentially ended last summer when that agency, the FAA and the National Consortium for Aviation Mobility (NCAM) held a three-day SATS expo in Danville to show off the new technologies designed to make small aircraft more accessible to more people.

Guy Kemmerly, manager of the SATS project, told AIN that Danville was the culmination of the project that was funded largely by NASA as a public-private partnership with NCAM. NASA joined the FAA and NCAM to increase the likelihood that technology developed in the project would be transferred to the private sector.

“As NASA closes its project,” Kemmerly said, “the expectation is that the private sector will take these technologies, build them into products and take them to the FAA–which has already seen them–so it should streamline certification.”

As of last summer, participating companies were expecting to carry to certification a low-cost, head-up display designed for general aviation use, a “cockpit associate” that monitors critical systems in the aircraft and a low-cost ceilometer to get real-time weather at small airports. Some SATS participants also want to transplant some innovations from the auto industry to aviation.

One of these demonstrated at Danville was a low-energy laser that is mounted above and behind the pilot, which paints a laser line that creates an artificial horizon across the pilot’s entire field of view. It moves up and down with pitch changes and rolls as the aircraft rolls. It is said to be much easier to see using peripheral vision while other instruments are being scanned, and pilots say it is much easier to stay oriented to the outside environment.

The system was developed by two Michigan universities that plan to take it through to FAA certification. But the private sector has to become involved to move it to the manufacturing stage.

At Danville, participants flew a live demonstration with six aircraft performing self-controlled instrument approaches into non-towered Danville Regional Airport during a 30-minute period. Screens in the exhibit halls showed the information that the six crews were seeing on their ADS-B screens to fly the approaches in self-controlled airspace (SCA).

The aircraft involved in the demonstration were three light twins, two singles and the FAA’s Convair 580. They began the exercise by asking ATC for permission to enter the SCA and then headed for two designated initial approach fixes. Pilots were on instruments and needed no further instruction from controllers.

As it winds down its direct participation in SATS, NASA believes that the private sector should carry the technology to certification. But John Sheehan, executive director of NCAM, noted that the private sector can do only so much.

During the SATS technology demonstration, NCAM members contributed about $26 million by doing research. “There are some things that will come out of SATS that the individual companies worked on and those will go into the certification process and eventually become available,” he told AIN. “But ultimately the responsibility for the air traffic system lies with the federal government, and we can’t change that. If the private sector wanted to, it couldn’t.”

Improving the Transportation System

Sheehan explained that the SATS concept is about public transportation–people being able to fly on small aircraft from one small airport to another small airport, using on-demand transportation. The program takes into account that nearly all of the people in the U.S. live within 30 minutes of an under-used community airport, most without radar or a control tower.

“At the heart of the SATS concept that we demonstrated in Danville was the ability to eliminate the procedural control of the aircraft by having one in and one out of an uncontrolled airport,” he said. “We live with that as a system today at a lot of places in the country that people don’t know about–places like Danville.”

In addition, there are airports with airline service that are delayed as much as half an hour because of one in and one out in IMC. “The SATS technology demonstrated that we can do better,” said Sheehan. “The result is we are not poised to do anything about it. And that’s not something the private sector can fix.”

The NCAM executive director questions NASA’s decision, at the behest of the Bush Administration, to focus only on fundamental research, primarily on the space program. Describing it as “sort of a knee-jerk reaction,” he lamented that the agency did not consider what other projects might be good for the quality of life and the economic development of the country.

“It’s like everything else; things get prioritized in the budget process,” Sheehan said. Under the banner of aeronautics, which covers SATS, NASA is “prioritizing things such that this doesn’t fit in its portfolio.”

He added, however, that NCAM is going forward with the overall SATS concepts, and
he conceded that maybe NASA is not the place to do it. “It really falls in the Department of Transportation or the [FAA], as part of DOT, to figure out what aspects of SATS need to be implemented.”

NCAM seeks to determine what the private sector can do on its own, or by working with the FAA to figure out how to implement some of the SATS technologies. It also is working with the Joint Planning and Development Office, the multi-agency organization that is planning the next-generation air transportation system (NGATS).

Embedded in that NGATS plan, said Sheehan, are all of the characteristics of what SATS will be. “We didn’t start this as a four-year kind of an effort to be involved with NASA just to do a demonstration,” he said. “The demonstration was designed and planned to prove that technology could do this.

“If somebody had said up front, ‘Hey we’re just going to do this’ and after the demonstration it’s just going to be a nice show-and-tell, and everybody goes home, we wouldn’t even have started.”