Tuesday, November 24

New Technology Can Track Aircraft with FM Signals

Sensor development in the aerospace industry is all about improving aircraft and the systems that track them. For as long as most of us can remember, radar has been the primary means of keeping track of both military and civilian aircraft. That might be about to change, thanks to a new system just unveiled by an Israeli aerospace engineering company. Their passive system relies on FM signals.

That’s right, the same signals that transmit music from your favorite classic rock radio station to your car radio can be harnessed to track even uncooperative aircraft. Better yet, such aircraft can be tracked without pilot knowledge. The system has obvious implications for military and commercial aviation.

How It Works

Radar works by transmitting high-powered radio signals and measuring any reflection that comes back. A commercial airliner, for example, reflects radar waves quite readily. An airport radar unit can pick up a plane’s location and track it by measuring the radio signals as they reflect back to a receiver.

The FM system developed by Israel’s ELTA Systems works on a similar principle, except that it relies on FM radio signals. This offers multiple advantages:

1. Only Receivers Are Necessary

The system does not require users to transmit FM signals. Instead, users only need receivers to pick up signals already being transmitted by radio and digital audio broadcasting towers. Those towers are transmitting signals that move in every direction. System users need only pick up those signals and measure their reflection.

2. Low-Power Signals

Compared to radar, FM signals are low-power signals. As such, they can be harnessed to track aircraft that has been specifically designed to not radiate radar. In other words, the same stealth measures that make aircraft invisible to radar do not work as well with FM signals.

3. Highly Mobile Tracking

A third advantage of the system is that it offers highly mobile tracking. Small receivers and antennas can be affixed to vehicles, for example, allowing users to continually track aircraft while driving around. This could be especially helpful for monitoring unmanned aircraft – think drones here – operating dangerously close to civilian airports.

There are obvious military applications here as well. Mobile tracking without the need for highly visible radar trucks changes the game. If armies could completely eliminate ground-based radar from the battlefield, all the better. This is not to say that it will ever happen. Rather, it is to say that there is now an avenue for pursuing the possibility.

Tapping into Older Technology

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this new system is that it taps into older technology. Sometimes that’s the way to go, according to the engineers at California’s Rock West Solutions. Indeed, a visit to Rock West’s facilities would reveal a whole host of modern technology on the cutting edge of aerospace design. But sometimes, decades-old technology offers a better solution.

Tapping into FM signals to track aircraft is but one example. Using decades-old RFID technology to track assets is another. In fact, did you know that the global airline industry is gradually transitioning to RFID luggage tracking? Modern RFID systems streamline and automate baggage handling by continually tracking bags along their entire journey through the airport.

A Whole New Industry

It has been more than 100 years since the Wright brothers changed history with the first powered flight at Kill Devil Hills, NC. The aerospace industry has come a long way since then. Much of what has been accomplished is directly related to the development of cutting-edge sensors. The ELTA tracking system is the latest evidence that the industry’s evolution continues.

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