Jan 6, 2010 4:03 PM by Leanne Gregg

New tracking system for planes in Colorado mountains

A new aircraft surveillance system in Colorado is providing air traffic controllers a better way to track planes around mountain airports. It's called "wide area multi leration", the first of its kind in the country and one part of a new system the FAA hopes will replace traditional radar over the next decade.

"It really does enhance efficiency by giving us eyes in places we've never been able to see before," said Travis Vallin from the Colorado Department Of Transportation.

Existing radar can't track planes through mountains. The new system can.

"Here's the Rifle Airport and here's the VFR aircraft at 8,200 feet. We would not have seen that before on the old radar," Vallin said.

20 sensors have been placed around four airports within the Rockies that serve Hayden, Steamboat Springs, Craig and Rifle, Colorado. The sensors pick up aircraft signals, then computers determine the plane's location.

The state of Colorado purchased the new system, tested it, then turned it over to the FAA to own and maintain. They plan to expand the surveillance to include other mountain airports.

"Anytime we can positively identify where an airplane is, especially in the mountains which are very difficult terrain to operate in, it provides for a more safe and efficient system," Vallin said.

And there's a huge economic benefit, especially in ski communities that rely on vacationers. Because they can more easily track the planes, controllers can allow more than twice the number of arrivals or departures at those airports. Officials also say "wide area multi lateration" costs less to purchase and to maintain than traditional radar.

One part of next generation technology that's expected to help eventually transform the nation's air traffic control system.



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