Saturday, April 7, 2012

Pondering Satellite Overdependency

I attended the recent Ohio Aerospace Jobs Summit sponsored by the Aerospace & Aviation Council with Senator Rob Portman.  I got quite a few business development take aways and some future blog material to boot.

The most intriguing one is not something up my alley, but yet it is.

A panel on the FAA NextGen system was most intriguing. It's a topic not something normally part of our Port Authority business.  We aren't a port authority that owns an airport after all.

It concerns everyone though.  The FAA is moving away from the ground-based radar systems to, some day in the future, a satellite-based system that allows planes to travel more direct flights and be managed via GPS systems instead.

I had a question ready that someone asked before I could ask it: "What are the backup or fail safes for satellite-dependent systems?"  Could we be overdependent on satellite systems?

The answer is not readily apparent and the panel's response made that abundantly clear. 

We are a satellite-dependent society already, something that kind of snuck up on most of us.  We're going to be more so in the future, especially if our entire $1.3 trillion international air travel system is dependent upon it.

The GPS in our cars is more relied upon than paper maps.  Our smartphones and iPads have GPS devices in them too. We know where our freight traffic is thanks to GPS.  Almost all of our television broadcasts and other communications are satellite-transmitted.  So are our weather forecasting capabilities.  So many more things in our economy depend on satellites than was true even 10 years ago.  More is coming too.

Yet, potential attacks on our satellites is a real threat and a real vulnerability.  China showed off its ability to shoot down satellites from the ground in 2007.  That was no subtle message.  Cyber attacks are another area of legitimate concern with multiple such attacks already proven to have happened.

The minds at the Port Authority's Aerospace Center in Heath could possess the answer. 

For 50 years, the Center has had a role in inertial guidance navigation systems.  Inertial guidance systems are already in use in components of aircraft and, ironically, satellites.  They are systems that can run independent of a base station and yet provide a precise geographic location.

Inertial guidance is a more expensive option than GPS for some systems.  But its ability to operate independently from satellites could hold the answer to the FAA's NextGen and other satellite-dependent geographic-based systems. 

Something to ponder.

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