Houston air traffic controllers now are beginning to use the satellite-based Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) system to more efficiently and safely separate and manage aircraft flying over the Gulf of Mexico, where radar can't reach, the FAA said on Tuesday. "This is a significant, early step toward NextGen," said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, in a press conference at the Houston Air Route Traffic Control Center. "We're delivering, on time, a system that's not only more accurate than radar but comes with significant safety and efficiency benefits. This will save time and money for aircraft operators and passengers and reduce our carbon footprint." Previously, controllers had to rely on an aircraft's estimated or reported -- not actual -- position. About 5,000 to 9,000 helicopter operations to and from oil platforms take place every day in the Gulf. Under IFR at low altitudes the helicopters were isolated within 20-mile-square boxes to ensure safe separation from other aircraft. Commercial aircraft in the non-radar airspace were separated by as much as 120 miles.
Aircraft equipped with ADS-B in the region will now know where they are in relation to bad weather and will receive en route flight information including Notams and TFRs, the FAA said. Controllers now can safely reduce the separation between ADS-B-equipped aircraft to 5 nautical miles. The new technology will also allow the FAA to provide new, more direct routes over the Gulf of Mexico, improving the efficiency of aircraft operations while using less fuel. A network of ground stations was deployed on oil platforms and the surrounding shoreline, bringing satellite-based surveillance to an area with almost as much daily air traffic as the northeast corridor. Controllers in Philadelphia will begin using ADS-B in February and the system will become operational in Juneau in April. ADS-B is expected to be available nationwide by 2013.