Australia will become the first country in the world to make operational use of the $15.3 billion ($US10 billion), US-built LAAS global positioning system to help aircraft make precision landings next month when it inaugurates an enhanced landing system on tiny Norfolk Island, 1500kms east of the Australian coast.
Norfolk Island has installed a Local Area Augmentation System (LAAS) on the island that will enhance the accuracy of the GPS signals within "the sub-meter" range, according to Bill Ely, operational test and evaluation specialist for AirServices Australia, which served as a consultant on the project.
Use of GPS augmented by LAAS gear - computers, radios and GPS receiver, sited at known points which help correct for errors in the GPS signal and also monitor the functioning of the 24 satellite constellation - costs about one-tenth of what it would take to install a ground-based instrument landing system on the 3.2km by 8km island.
"This is the only commercial [LAAS] in operational use in the world," Ely said.
"An ILS system for Norfolk Island would cost about $9.24 million ($US6 million) . . . while the LAAS cost between $924,000 to $1 million ($US600,000 and $US700,000)," said Ely, speaking at the US Coast Guard conference in Nashville, Tennessee, sponsored Civil GPS Service Interface Committee, a semi-annual meeting of world-wide civil users of GPS technology, originally developed by the Department of Defense for military use, including precision weapons.
Norfolk Island, discovered by Captain James Cook in October, 1774 - or 255 years to the month before the LAAS GPS service will start operation - is heavily dependent on tourism, and needed low-cost landing aids.
"It's a piece of rock that sits in the middle of the Pacific Ocean . . . subject to sea fog, and if a plane cannot land it's in deep trouble."
Ely said that FlightWest, the main Australian carrier serving Norfolk Island racked up $40,000 in costs a month due to flights that could not land and had to return to Australia or New Zealand.
Norfolk Island, a bucolic island where people do not lock their doors, leave their keys in their cars and the place "Thorn Birds" author Colleen McCullough calls home, cannot afford such flight diversions, Ely said "because the entire island economy is dependent on tourism . . . the number of turn-arounds FlightWest had to do in the past 12 months was very high, and it was eating into their profits."
The LAAS system on Norfolk Island uses reference stations, computers and radio gear packaged for the installation by Honeywell of the US and Peloras of Canada, with Honeywell supplying aircraft avionics.
The Federal Aviation Administration plans to install LAAS systems throughout the US, Ely said, but so far has only tested it in non-operational modes.