Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Another Dumb System -- Busted

Did you know that in 1859, when the telegraph system was only 15 years old, much of it shorted out and caught on fire ? The damage was caused by sunspots. To be more precise, the communications outage was caused by the biggest solar flare in recorded history. It was so big that you could see the Northern Lights in Havana.

It’s amazing the things I learn when I’m talking to air traffic controllers. No, we haven’t gone ‘round the bend. I haven’t taken up a new hobby -- astronomy -- either. My buddy Spike has. (What ? You mean you don’t have a friend named Spike ?) Spike is a modern-day Renaissance Man -- he always has a new hobby. Right now it is solar astronomy. You can check it out for yourself. He’s the one that directed me towards the article about solar flares. Why ? This will make it clearer.

Solar Superstorm

”A 1994 solar storm caused major malfunctions to two communications satellites, disrupting newspaper, network television and nationwide radio service throughout Canada. Other storms have affected systems ranging from cell phone service and TV signals to GPS systems and electrical power grids.“

You caught that “GPS systems” bit, right ? Do you remember this quote from the Associated Press story I used in my post “Dead Wrong” ?

“The $35 billion plan would replace the current radar system with the kind of GPS technology that has become commonplace in cars and cell phones. Supporters say it would triple air traffic capacity, reduce delays by at least half, improve safety and curb greenhouse gas emissions. “

Now, just suppose we could “triple air traffic capacity” (we can’t) by replacing our “current radar system” (we won’t) with a new “kind of GPS technology” based system. And then a big old solar flare came along and fried our GPS system. What would we have ? Another Dumb System -- Busted. ADS-B.


Automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) is a cooperative surveillance technique for air traffic control and related applications. An ADS-B-out equipped aircraft determines its own position using a global navigation satellite system and periodically broadcasts this position and other relevant information to potential ground stations and other aircraft with ADS-B-in equipment.

The sunspot stuff is easy to understand. I bet you didn’t even pick out the important part of the Wikipedia quote above -- because I’ve got you looking in the wrong place. Here’s the important part. “(ADS-B) is a cooperative surveillance technique...” That means if the pilot of the airplane isn’t “cooperative” -- if he doesn’t turn the little black box on -- air traffic controllers will never see him on that system that replaces radar but isn’t radar -- ADS-B.

I’m just a retired controller so what do I know ? Maybe you had rather take the word of the “experts” with your $35 billion dollars. I mean, it’s worked out so well with your 401K and the world’s economy.

Don Brown
October 29, 2008

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