By Dave Whitman, President, Sunhillo Corporation, Dr. John Berthold, D.M.
The skies above the United States and around the world are crowded and it’s getting worse. On an average day in the United States, Air Traffic Control (ATC) handles over 28,000 commercial flights, 27,000 General Aviation flights, 24,000 air taxi charters, 5,000 military flights, and approximately 2,000 air cargo operations. Globally, there are roughly 100,000 scheduled flights per day, transporting about 8 million people to their destinations. Add the potential that tens of thousands of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS’s) could be flying and sharing the same airspace, and we have a larger challenge looming. That is, our ability to control, surveil and safely separate all these assets fighting for space in our skies. So, what does the future portend? The answer is a little uncertainty laced with solutions already in place and companies working daily to solve these and other issues to provide us with a safe, and efficient global aviation system.
The Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) system, a technology mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), is scheduled to be fully deployed and operational on all aircraft by 2020. ADS-B complements traditional ground-based radar systems and constitutes a paradigm shift in ATC toward satellite-based, cooperative, and dependent surveillance. Unlike traditional radar systems, ADS-B provides enhanced situational awareness capabilities by empowering aircraft to automatically broadcast and report their locations. ADS-B enhances aviation safety by making each aircraft visible, in near real-time, to both ATC and other appropriately equipped aircraft with identification and position data. The new system improves air travel safety, increases on-time arrivals and departures; and reduces fuel consumption and carbon emissions significantly through more efficient air traffic routing. ADS-B is often, colloquially and without a lot of technical jargon, known as ‘a GPS system for the skies’.
The traditional approach for ensuring situational awareness is to rely on radar systems. Conventional ground-based radar systems can be classified as Primary Surveillance Radars (PSR) or Secondary Surveillance Radars (SSR). PSR systems, known to many through television and movies, transmits high-frequency signals which are reflected off the “painted” target or aircraft. By receiving and evaluating the echoes, the range and azimuth of the aircraft can be determined. In contrast, SSR relies on transponders in the aircraft, which respond to interrogations from the ground stations. SSR systems contain altitude, aircraft identification codes and special information such as registration, type and class of aircraft. Since surveillance data is derived from aircraft transponders, SSR systems are a form of dependent surveillance, similar to the airborne Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcasting (ADS-B) system. The difference, in general terms, derives from the ability of aircraft to broadcast its own position for all to see, and for the empowered pilot to be able to surveil, ‘see and avoid’, other aircraft at greater distances while also communicating to ground ATC stations.
The “magic” in this whole process comes from the separation, translation, consolidation and transmission of surveillance data, received in multiple formats, into an acceptable form that is used by automation systems for ATC controllers to see and separate aircraft. It is in this “gray area”, between the receipt and acceptance of usable surveillance data, whether traditional radar or ADS-B, where a very few and specialized niche companies operate. One such company, headquartered in the Philadelphia-area, has an established and world-wide presence – Sunhillo Corporation.
For over a quarter century, Sunhillo, a small employee owned business headquartered in West Berlin NJ and within commuting distance of Philadelphia, has been providing surveillance enabling technologies to the FAA and air traffic service providers worldwide. Its suite of products and systems collect, filter, convert, and distribute surveillance data from multiple sources including PSR, SSR and ADS-B. For the ADS-B program, Sunhillo helped to design, produce and install its ground-based distribution network. As a matter of fact, the ‘heartbeat’ of the ADS-B distribution network uses Sunhillo products and technologies to enable its operations.
Across the world, Sunhillo products, systems and their expertise are a valued commodity. Sunhillo’s international business is bolstered through a worldwide supply network of distributors, agents, and an office in the UK. Sunhillo products are used in 48 countries around the world in support of air traffic operations. Customers include Eurocontrol, a European organization with headquarters in Brussels that includes 41 other member countries. Eurocontrol was specifically created to facilitate a safe and seamless air transportation system across Europe. In the UK, NATS, its National Air Traffic Services provider, routinely calls upon Sunhillo to offer both its expertise and products. Other Air Navigation Service Providers that call on Sunhillo include Spain, Germany, the Republic of Georgia, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Brazil, and Chile among others. For the defense of European skies, Sunhillo products are supplied to NATO in support of its on-going mission. Yet, Sunhillo’s mark on the aviation community goes even deeper.
In 2013, Sunhillo was invited to participate in the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP), a large UAS test site consortium comprised of academia, government, industry, economic development organizations and research parks. The primary role of these test sites are to ensure that UAS operations can be tested in a safe environment and to gather data to help in the development of regulations and operational procedures for future commercial or civil use of UAS vehicles (drones) in our airspace. Additionally, Sunhillo participates in an on-going NASA UAS study group on how to manage UAS assets that share our skies. Sunhillo’s suite of products and inherent expertise in the area of ATC surveillance continues to play a pivotal role in the expected UAS tsunami to come.
There are other antidotes about Sunhillo that are not well known or publicized. Sunhillo supports the US Secret Service in the tracking of Air Force One. Sunhillo designed, and the FAA deployed, a mesh network of simulated or “virtual radar” coverages across the Gulf of Mexico where ground based radars are ineffectual. Sunhillo products are used for drug interdiction missions, surveilling the southern portion of the US and Caribbean regions. And, Sunhillo products are an integral part of our border security solution that uses Tethered Aerostat Radar Systems to surveil our southern border with Mexico. For a small company, Sunhillo does big things to make the world a safer and more efficient place in which to fly. Sunhillo is also a proud supporter of the Philadelphia World Trade Center of Greater Philadelphia and previous winner of the prestigious New Jersey “Company of the Year” award.