Though the Eclipse 500 won't be certified to fly until December 2003, Eclipse Aviation claims it already has orders through the first quarter of 2006-though the company refuses to say exactly how many planes this represents. Besides Eclipse, other small aircraft makers preparing for SATS include Safire, which is developing a new six-seater jet, the S-26, and Cirrus and Lancair, which are introducing new propeller-driven aircraft with synthetic vision screens that could accommodate SATS transmissions.
Until those airplanes start rolling off the production lines, the consortium will have to settle for less sexy test vehicles. Harris' designers are installing Goodrich's SmartDeck in an older twin-engine Cessna 310. The airplane will fly among three Florida airports that have the first ground station test beds: Melbourne, Daytona Beach, and Sebring (stations at Tallahassee, Gainesville, and Tamiami will be operational next year). Engineers at these airports will monitor all activity between the SmartDeck-equipped aircraft and the cluster of computers in the ground station. They'll be paying particular attention to the accuracy of the landings in Florida's erratic weather conditions.
Indeed, safety is at the top of everybody's list of concerns. It's likely that even though SATS is based on an automated traffic control system, flight monitoring by humans may still be needed-for peace of mind, if nothing else. "There's going to be more airplanes in a lower strata of traffic," says Richard Swauger, technology coordinator for the National Association of Air Traffic Controllers. "It's going to create new safety (requirements) you've never had to have before." Some pilots go a step further and say that computerized flying itself is the real peril of SATS. "I can't even get Windows XP to operate properly on my computer," says Joe Castanza, a Lincoln Park, New Jersey, physics professor with about 1,500 hours as a flight instructor. "Sure, it will make flight training easier for students, and sure, it will open up any airport socked in with zero-visibility fog, but what happens when the computer system goes south? I think it would enable pilots to rely more on computers than they do already, and I think that's dangerous."
That probably won't be a problem, responds Embry-Riddle's Stackpoole. In a twin-engine aircraft there's a triple redundancy: two engine alternators and a 30-minute battery backup; in a single-engine machine there's a double redundancy. "As far as the glass cockpit, if one side goes, the other one backs up the one that goes out," Stackpoole explains.
The SATS consortium has more to prove than computer reliability. By 2005, NASA hopes to demonstrate four key SATS capabilities: higher air traffic volumes at unstaffed airports; lower landing minimums (the weather thresholds at which airports can continue to operate) at these airports; an overall improvement in safety and efficiency; and a plan for integrating SATS into the current system.
Despite the obstacles that must be overcome, SATS holds an allure that is decades old. Science fiction writers and future-focused artists have long fantasized about personal aircraft skimming the skies, rapidly moving people from place to place. If nothing else, NASA's new effort is one very large step to the day when it may be as natural to hail a plane as a yellow checker cab.
Phil Scott has been flying since he was 10. He lives in New York City.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.