FAA: Aircraft must adopt new communications system by 2020

Satellite-based technology will improve accuracy and visibility of flight position information.

The Federal Aviation Administration has taken another step forward on its overhaul of the national air traffic control system with new aircraft tracking standards.

A final rule, published in Friday's Federal Register, requires aircraft to adopt Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B), a new data-based position-monitoring system designed to improve communications between pilots and air traffic controllers, by January 2020.

Specifically, the rule mandates that pilots begin broadcasting their positions via ADS-B Out with certain standards of accuracy and establishes equipage requirements. It does not apply to ADS-B In, which allows an aircraft to receive and display satellite information. According to the rule, these technologies still are in their infancy, so operators will not be required to equip aircraft immediately.

"This rule gives the green light for manufacturers to begin building the onboard equipment that will allow our air traffic controllers to know where aircraft are with great precision and reliability," said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt in a statement. "That is one of the key elements of [the] NextGen [air traffic control modernization] that will improve the safety and efficiency of flight."

The rule applies to aircraft flying through certain classes of airspace, above 10,000 feet and around busy airports. ADS-B already is in use in the Gulf of Mexico; Louisville, Ky.; Philadelphia; and Juneau, Alaska. According to the agency, ADS-B will be rolled out nationwide by 2013.

FAA on Wednesday awarded $4.4 billion in industry contracts to Boeing Co., General Dynamics and ITT to develop components for NextGen, including weather, communications and navigation systems, as well as automation, operations and procedures.