How Do We Monitor All The Planes In The Sky?
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How Do We Monitor All The Planes In The Sky?

September 7, 2019


Air travel used to be the dream of mankind,
but today it’s a pretty standard part of our reality. Now with all those jets zipping
around, the sky is a lot more crowded than it was in 1903 when it was just one guy up
there named Orville. How do we share the skies safely? Hi flyers, Trace here for DNews. It’s getting
mighty crowded in our skies, look up right now, I bet you’ll see an airplane. Or your
ceiling. But above that…an airplane. So, how do we make sure we have enough space up
there to stretch our wings? To keep the skies safe there needs to be an
interplay between regulations and technology. I won’t get too into it, but suffice it
to say, there are a lot of rules aircraft have to obey, both in flight and before take
off. To start with, they need to file a flight plan with information like departure and arrival
points, estimated flight time, alternate destinations in case of emergency, passengers on board,
and info about the aircraft itself. Then, air traffic controllers will take that flight
plan into consideration with other flight plans, and run it through a computer algorithm,
which helps determine the fastest and safest route to take. At a minimum, flight paths
are kept 1000 feet (305 meters) from each other, because c’mon you don’t want to get
too close — your pilot is good but he’s not Maverick. Unless his name is Maverick. And
then he is. Once it’s time to kick the tires and light the fires, the airspace itself is
divided into different classes based on altitude and proximity to airports.
Obviously, airspace near larger airports is going to be the busiest, so it has the most
rules. On top of that it also has the most failsafes for tracking incoming and outgoing
aircraft to make sure nobody’s swapping paint, like radar. Radar is actually an acronym
that stands for RAdio Detection And Ranging. It works by sending out radio waves that bounce
off of objects and come back to a receiver. Based on the time delay between sending and
receiving transmissions, it’s possible to calculate where an object is. And based on
how much of the signal gets returned, an object’s size can be determined. This is why stealth
aircraft are shaped the way they are: they’re scattering the radio waves away from the receiver. But radar doesn’t work on every kind of
object, it usually works best with metal, but not all planes are made that way; smaller
composite planes just don’t show up. The radar typically used for commercial air travel
also has a limited range over the ocean, extending about 200 miles (321 kilometers) off the coast.
Plus radar can’t tell air traffic control an object’s altitude, which is a pretty
important consideration when you’re moving in 3 dimensions. To overcome these problems, a Secondary Surveillance
Radar system is used. Commercial aircraft and many smaller private planes are equipped
with a device called a transponder. The device is so important, commercial aircraft actually
carry two. Air traffic control’s radar pings the transponder with a request for information
with a regular radio signal — the pings can teach Air Traffic Control a lot, but even
more importantly, transponders are hooked into the aircraft’s on-board systems. So,
the altimeter can relay its information to the ground. Pilots are also given a code by
air traffic control which the plug into their transponder to make sure they correlate this
information with their flight plan. Transponders can even be used so aircraft
can communicate with each other, which is handy over the ocean and out of range of Air
Traffic Control’s eyes. Commercial jets don’t have radar for detecting other aircraft,
but they can detect each other’s transponders and calculate if they’re on an unsafe course.
If they are, the aircraft will alert the pilots and suggest a course correction. They can
even coordinate the two planes’ adjustments, avoiding both of them doing that awkward dance
we all do when walking towards someone in a hallway. Communication technology keeps aircraft a
safe distance from each other, but newer materials make aircraft stronger and more comfortable.
To learn how composites are changing the game, check out this video here. So knowing air traffic safety depends on radio
frequencies, are you worried about your cell phone mucking everything up?

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