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Flying car & roboplane-worthy air traffic digi-net go for 2025

Radar, voice to be replaced by satnav and data

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But what about the robots and flying cars?

If all this is to happen, however, national and international protocols and standards need to work properly. NextGen and its European equivalent, SESAR, need to be compatible. The architectures have to be open so as to allow new technology to be added - for instance the soon-to-appear new Euro-satnav constellation Galileo, or improved networking kit. Security needs to be got right.

Is this happening?

To answer that question, the FAA handed out a five-year, $10m deal in July to a body called the Network Centric Operations Industry Consortium (NCOIC). Under the agreement, the aerospace-IT industry matches the FAA dollar for dollar in monitoring and assessing NextGen kit as it comes on line, identifying problems that need sorting out.

Early indications are apparently positive, with Flight International reporting today that the NCOIC ongoing study says that NextGen is "headed down the right street" and that a 2025 timeframe is realistic.

NextGen/SESAR type technologies are of interest to Reg readers apart from their implications for ordinary aviation, too.

For one thing, a working system along these lines would make life hugely simpler for builders and operators of unmanned aircraft. At the moment, such machines are mostly restricted to operations outside civil regulated airspace, as they are deemed to lack the "sense and avoid" capability offered by human pilots - much though this is often largely notional in the case of high-speed aircraft, especially in poor visibility.

A working location net would tell a robot pilot where all the other aircraft were in terms it could understand, allowing it to operate in congested, tightly-regulated airspace at least as safely as a human pilot does under instrument-flying rules and radar control. Unmanned aircraft would be able to fly in normal airspace, rather than being restricted primarily to operations above far-flung warzones as they are today.

And that in turn has important implications for the field of personal air vehicles - flying cars. In order to be safe in the air, especially crowded airspace above urban areas, such cars would currently need to be flown by very highly-qualified pilots, making them too troublesome to own for most people. This is why more realistic personal-air-vehicle plans have usually assumed a hugely capable autopilot/flight-director system, one so good that it would be pretty much capable of conducting a trip without any human input at all. Such autopilots are already available, but collision avoidance is the one thing they have yet to master.

In the skies of 2025, with working NextGen/SESAR not just available but quite possibly mandatory*, with the traffic system able to handle orders of magnitude more aircraft per cubic mile, one of the toughest obstacles to our long-desired flying cars might finally have disappeared.

Now all we need is the actual cars. ®

*Just as a secondary-radar transponder is more or less required for ordinary aircraft these days, certainly if they want to fly outside quite limited portions of the UK.

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