Technology set for takeoff

Area airports may use latest advancements to track airplanes

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Airports in Routt and Moffat counties could be the first in the lower 48 states to use technology to track airplanes.

The new system would mean improved safety and capacity for Yampa Valley Regional Airport, Steamboat Springs Airport and the Craig Municipal Airport.

The three airports were chosen by the Colorado Department of Transportation to test the new technology. Only Alaska has similar systems now, said Travis Vallin, state aeronautics director.

"All in all, it's good news, it's exciting news," Vallin said when he told county commissioners, airport staff and members of the Yampa Valley Airport Commission.

County officials said they were excited to be the ones to test the new system.

"We're all in favor," County Commissioner Doug Monger said. "Let's move forward and go."

The three airports do not have their own radar systems. That means that when an airplane drops below about 9,000 feet, it is invisible to air traffic controllers in Denver.

Most smaller airports in the mountains of Colorado do not have their own radar, Vallin said.

He compared the lack of radar coverage to driving in the fog. In such conditions, everything slows down and the capacity of the airport decreases. That makes for a traffic jam in the sky. Ultimately, some airplanes may be diverted to other airports.

With the new technology, Denver air traffic controllers will be able to "see" airplanes in this area when they are below 9,000 feet, possibly even to the ground.

The new system involves two technologies.

One is a wide-area multilateration system, which uses triangulation to find the airplanes' location. The other is the automatic dependent surveillance broadcast, which uses satellite surveillance. The ADSB is considered the wave of the future, but few airplanes are equipped to respond to it now.

The Division of Aeronautics, part of the Colorado Depart--ment of Transportation, is working with the Federal Aviation Administration to share the cost of the test system.

The cost will be between $1.5 million and $2 million, said Bill Payne, a consultant for the test project. By comparison, a single radar system can cost between $4 million and $12 million.

"This is the next step in radar," Payne said.

Payne emphasized that the primary radar systems always would be useful, but this alternative fills the gap for smaller airports that can't justify the cost of such radar.

The county's task now is to find good locations for the eight transceivers used in the multi-lateration system. Each transceiver needs to be in a place that is secure and has access to power and a telephone line.

Preparation on the transceiver sites could begin as early as this summer, Vallin said.

This test system could be influential nationwide, Vallin said. After the system is working for this area, the Colorado Department of Transportation will look at others.

"When we are successful up here, we're not done," Vallin said.

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