Radar and radio, used since World War II to track aircraft from the ground, will eventually give way to a new satellite-based navigation technology, the government said Tuesday.
Federal Aviation Administrator Marion Blakey said developing a system based on the new technology is critical to the future of aviation.
"It's the way we're going to be addressing the horrific congestion we expect to see," Blakey told reporters. "It's the FAA's moon shot."
The FAA plans to spend $80 million for the next budget year and a total of $300 million within four years to go beyond the current experimental stage. By 2010, the system will be operational in 10 percent to 15 percent of the U.S. airspace, said Vincent Capezzuto, manager of FAA's surveillance and broadcast services.
Replacing the current radar-and-radio air traffic control system with one that relies on satellites will require billions of dollars and take up to 20 years, according to the FAA.
The satellite-based system, known as automatic dependent surveillance broadcast, or ADSB, includes a cockpit locator that determines an aircraft's precise location using the Global Positioning System. Once per second, a transponder sends that information to a ground station, which relays it to air traffic control.
Pilots can see the same visual display in the cockpit that air traffic controllers see on the ground, showing the aircraft's precise location as well as the weather and the location of other aircraft nearby.
Aircraft will be able to fly closer together using ADSB, which means more planes can use the airspace at the same time, Blakey said.
In addition, controllers will be able to track helicopters and private planes that now fly beneath the radar.
Air traffic controllers will still direct pilots and rules will still dictate how close to each other they can fly, Blakey said.
Now, there are 40 sites in the United States where ADSB can be used by airplanes equipped with the necessary electronic equipment, according to the FAA. By 2010, the agency plans to install 400 ground stations - essentially antennae that can be attached to cellphone towers.
The largest pilots' union, the Air Line Pilots Association, supports the ADSB program but believes the FAA must spend more to begin transforming the current air traffic control system.
"They're probably not spending enough," said Brian Townsend, who heads the pilots union's air traffic committee.
On Monday, two Democratic leaders on the House Transportation Committee expressed the same concerns in a letter to Blakey: "It is not clear that its budget supports this goal," wrote Reps. James Oberstar of Minnesota and Jerry Costello of Illinois.
Blakey estimates it will take 10 years to put ADSB in every U.S. aircraft, which includes about 200,000 private planes and 25,000 commercial airliners.
UPS already uses the technology on 107 of its airplanes, and plans to equip 116 more, said Karen Lee, the company's director of flight operations.
Oil companies hope to adopt ADSB for helicopters that fly to oil facilities in the Gulf of Mexico.
Matt Zaccaro, president of the Helicopters Association International, said 650 helicopters make about 7,500 daily trips to oil rigs a day. Most fly below 5,000 feet - too low to be spotted by radar.
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