Air Traffic Control Transitioning from Radar to Digital Guidance

Historically, radio transmissions have been the predominant means of communication between flight crews and air traffic controllers. Times are changing, however, as air traffic increases throughout the world and digital communication becomes the norm.

A single mistake in air traffic control can have catastrophic consequences, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is currently developing digital technology to reduce the risk of human error. Rather than radar, digital satellites will be used to direct planes with a higher degree of precision, and the job of air traffic controller is expected to change radically in terms of workload and how technology is used.

At an FAA lab in New Jersey, a digital system called NextGen is being tested in virtual environments before implementation in the field. Researchers at the lab stressed the importance of virtual reality as a way of gauging air traffic controllers’ reactions to new systems.

It has been estimated that the amount of air traffic will increase threefold in the coming years. According to an FAA research psychologist, the transition from time-consuming radio communications to the NextGen system will allow controllers to focus on the more difficult aspects of their jobs.

Air traffic controllers have an immense responsibility to protect the lives of flight crews and passengers. Numerous workplace surveys have ranked air traffic controller as one of the most stressful jobs a person can have, and safety advocates, regulators and the aviation industry must do their parts to ensure that air traffic controllers have the tools and training they need to keep the airways safe.

Source: Press of Atlantic City, “FAA lab using virtual reality to improve aviation safety,” Donald Wittkowski, June 8, 2014

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