Engineering Improves Aviation in the Gulf Read about how ATO Program Management Organization (PMO) engineers are improving flight safety over the Gulf of Mexico by implementing surveillance broadcast services where radar coverage has never existed.

This year marks the 66th anniversary of Engineers Week since its founding by the National Society of Professional Engineers in 1951.Through a coalition of more than 70 engineering, educational and cultural societies, as well as more than 50 corporations and government agencies, Engineers Week aims to promote awareness of engineers’ contributions and the importance of technical education and careers.

Glenn Meier is the Gulf ADS-B Project Team Lead within the ATO Program Management Organization (PMO).

In the recent past, it was impossible for controllers to track aircraft over the wide expanses of the Gulf of Mexico. Using traditional radar systems on the oil platforms was simply not feasible, but today’s satellite surveillance technology has provided the solution.

The FAA’s implementation of Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast over the gulf has drastically increased efficiency and reliability of aviation operations while maintaining a high level of safety. The gulf air traffic system has been specifically implemented to accommodate the diverse aviation needs that include high-altitude commercial aviation traveling between the United States and Mexico or between Florida and Texas, as well as low-altitude helicopters supporting the thousands of oil platforms and the military.

So why is this technology so important to such a large area?

Quite simply, the small footprint of the ground-based ADS-B radio makes it possible to install it on an oil platform. In order for ADS-B to work, the aircraft transmits the aircraft’s location, derived from the navigation system, to the ground-based radio. This cooperative system eliminates the large radar antenna and power usage. The radio forwards the aircraft location to air traffic controllers for precise flight tracking.

Meier installs ADS-B radios on oil platforms like this in the Gulf of Mexico for safer flight over uncontrolled airspace. (Photo: FAA)

Before ADS-B, controllers could not see traffic over the gulf. Instead, they had to rely on estimated reported positions and secondhand communication from dispatchers to guide aircraft safely.

“It’s not cost effective to put big radar systems out on oil platforms, but you can afford to install smaller radios on several platforms so air traffic control can see the aircraft and maintain separation” said Glen Meier, the Gulf ADS-B Project Team lead. “It’s a big safety improvement.”

ADS-B radios now supplement radars all around the United States, but implementing this new technology in an area that previously had limited air traffic services required some special skills. That’s where Meier and his team come into play. The team is responsible for installing and maintaining ADS-B radios on the oil platforms.

The operators of the oil platforms and helicopters in the gulf provide substantial support to the FAA, and the Gulf ADS-B Project Team has developed several innovations to make it so successful. The team must be technically knowledgeable in surveillance and aviation systems, skilled in project management to ensure cost and schedule requirements are met, and excellent communicators to work with a diverse group of energy company executives, oil production engineers, helicopter operators, radar engineers and FAA contracts managers.

In 2012, Meier joined the FAA’s project, which began in 2006 when the agency formed a partnership with helicopter companies and oil companies in the gulf to put radios on the platforms. As part of the partnership, the FAA agreed to supply some weather systems and more low-altitude communication systems supporting the helicopters. The gulf was an early-adopter area, providing air traffic surveillance where none was available before and evaluating how the new system would work while radios were being installed throughout the rest of the United States. Meier said the gulf implementation was based on a similar project that was tested in Alaska.

Meier with a PHI pilot while on a site survey of a Gulf of Mexico platform.

Now all helicopters in the gulf operating under instrument flight rules, or IFR, are equipped with ADS-B transponders linked to the radios on the platforms and on shore. The ADS-B 2020 mandate will require that all aircraft receiving air traffic services be equipped with the aircraft surveillance technology. This includes commercial jets, helicopters and general aviation aircraft.

The project, Meier said, is ongoing and requires a lot of resources because the platforms do not have infinite life. “So, we’re regularly moving these radios from one platform to another as one shuts down,” he said.

Meier’s background is in electrical engineering, specializing in radar. After graduating from South Dakota State University with a degree in engineering, he worked for the Navy for five years on radars. Then he carried that experience to the FAA in 1985.

Now he is in a project management position and spends more time working with the financial, schedule and risk elements of the ADS-B project. His radar background is important in evaluating the technical aspects of the project.

“A lot of the effort is with analysis to ensure radio coverage and reliability,” he said. “You have to make sure the equipment is maintainable and reliable.”

What do you like most about engineering?

I love math and science, and problem-solving. Problem-solving is a big part of it.

From your perspective, what are some of the exciting developments in the engineering field since you first began your career?

Computers and all technical stuff are just amazing, the miniaturization and communications. When I started, PCs were not even around. You get a lot more done than we used to, and the whole ADS-B program is based on that. It’s a cooperative system. It’s a lot different because when I started we were still working the system that came out of World War II. Now it’s changed quite a bit.

Meier with a newly installed FAA AWOS weather system

What advice would you give to an engineering student today? What about a new engineer at the FAA?

I would advise both of them to find something that they like to do and concentrate on it. You’re going to excel where you enjoy working.

What are some of the future career avenues at the FAA you foresee for individuals with engineering degrees?

Communication is a big deal. That really encompasses everything. If you include computer science, there’s a lot of stuff being done on the Web that might be helpful.

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