Burns: GPS — Key Economic Benefit of Space Program — is at Risk

Burns: GPS — Key Economic Benefit of Space Program — is at Risk

At the A Day Without Space: Economic Security Ramifications seminar yesterday, Captain Joe Burns of United Airlines sent one message loud and clear: the future of aviation depends on GPS and that future is being threatened. 

Burns, who serves as United’s Managing Director of Technology and Flight Test, enumerated several reasons why GPS is important to aviation, including safer and better precision operations and a reduction in fuel burn and greenhouse gas emissions for an industry that is “exceptionally environmentally sensitive.”

According to Burns, the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen, a term used to describe transformations in the air transportation system that would increase efficiency and allow it to meet growing global demand, is “one hundred percent dependent on GPS.” From seemingly simple solutions like helping pilots find available gates, to live-saving safety improvements such as improving terrain awareness and enabling airlines to “de-conflict” in busy hubs like Chicago and New York, GPS is absolutely critical, he said.

These NextGen programs, some of which are already being implemented under the so-called NowGen effort, translate into considerable economic savings, sometimes exceeding 1,500 pounds of fuel per flight. This translates to millions of pounds of fuel a year, which Burns said would help reduce airlines’ fuel expenses and fuel accounts for about a third of United’s expenses

With this much promise, Burns is seriously concerned about the risks facing GPS. Specifically, he talked about the proliferation of inexpensive GPS jammers and LightSquared’s proposed mobile broadband system. While both are “a real threat to GPS,” Burns said that Lightsquared in particular was “a bit scary for our future operations,” since its signals “would bleed into the GPS system.” He asserted that none of the proposed filters shows any promise from an aviation industry standpoint and he hopes that LightSquared is denied permission to implement its hybrid satellite-terrestrial system.  “Without GPS, clearly, NextGen is dead in the water,” he said.

Also speaking at the seminar was Bill Wilt, Vice President for North American Sales at GeoEye.  He described his company’s activities in collecting, analyzing and delivering commercial satellite imagery products to customers and governments around the world. Wilt explained how these products not only support activities such as research and national defense, but are also part of some of the aviation programs that Burns mentioned.

Rebecca Spyke Keiser, NASA Associate Deputy Administrator for Policy Integration, presented an overview of the broad economic impact of the agency’s activities. The NASA budget equals about “half a penny of every federal dollar spent,” said Keiser, who lamented the persisting impression in some sectors that the NASA budget is a lot larger.

Keiser offered examples of NASA’s involvement in situations with clear economic impacts such as helping with remediation of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the volcanic ash from Iceland that disrupted air transportation in 2010. She also mentioned NASA’s 1,750 “spin offs,” technologies that have been successfully transferred to the private sector, as well as studies that track how many jobs and dollars are spent in a given locality as part of a specific program like the James Webb Space Telescope. Although it would be “hard to imagine what our economy would be like if NASA were not around,” precisely quantifying economic benefits as a result of NASA activities remains quite a challenge, she said.

The A Day Without Space series is hosted by the TechAmerica Space Enterprise Council and the George C. Marshall Institute.



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