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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia, U.S. Probe Joint Satellite System

Rockwell International Corp. announced Wednesday that it has received a grant to unite the Russian and American satellite navigational systems in a program aviation experts say could increase safety and revolutionize air traffic control worldwide.

The U.S. defense giant has been given a $4.7 million U.S. government contract to test technology that would understand and interpret signals emitted by both countries' satellites, for the first time creating a single worldwide navigational system.

The company expects to be ready for a test flight using a Northwest Airlines jet in the Russian Far East by next spring.

"This is a chance for Russians to leap frog and go to the forefront in the utilization of very, very modern technology," John A. McLuckey, senior vice president of Rockwell International, said in an interview.

The system would at first allow Russia to boost air traffic over crowded routes in the remote Far East, which are limited now because of a lack of radar stations. Instead of radar, airplanes would use satellites to navigate, cutting time from air routes and increasing safety, officials said.

Russia could as a result earn up to $350 million annually in overflight fees because airlines would choose to fly the shorter, more economical routes over Russian airspace instead of flying the free but longer routes over the ocean.

Eventually, unification of the two systems could permit any plane any where in the world to pinpoint its location to an accuracy of 100 meters without the assistance of ground-based radar stations.

"Airlines are getting what they want, the Russians are getting overflight fees, and there is a safety enhancement," said Dennis Cooper, senior FAA representative in Moscow. If the project works, it will be one of the most successful of all defense conversion efforts.

Many conversion projects fail because military products have only limited applicability in the civilian sector. But Rockwell executives said the satellite tracking system has direct uses in civilian shipping, aviation and even automobiles.

"This is a classic example of defense conversion at its very best," said Rockwell executive vice president Kenneth Medlin. "This is a dual use technology."

The U.S. car manufacturer Oldsmobile is to introduce a computer mapping system as an option in 1995 that will allow motorists to pinpoint their location using satellites.

Integration of the Russian and American systems could mean that in the future a U.S. motorist would also be using Russian satellites to locate his position.

Money for the project comes from the Nunn-Lugar act, a program named after two U.S. senators that is designed to assist Russian defense conversion projects.

Beginning in the 1970s, the United States and former Soviet Union each launched a network of satellites to provide military aircraft with exact navigational information.

The U.S. GPS, or Global Positioning System, consists of 24 satellites circling the globe while the Russian GLONASS system now consists of 14 satellites with plans to increase the number to 24.

But the downing of flight KAL 007 over Kamchatka in 1983 led the U.S. government to rethink whether the system should not also be used for civilian purposes. Ronald Reagan, the former U.S. president, offered to allow any country in the world to use GPS free of charge and Moscow, which had originally denied the existence of their system, eventually followed suit.

In the United States, pleasure boats can be equipped for only a few hundred dollars to pick up the satellite signals. More importantly, the Federal Aviation System decided four months ago to scrap a plan to install microwave technology at every U.S. airport in favor of GPS.In Russia, the immediate problem is in the Far East.

International airlines are lining up for access to routes, which are shorter and often provide better wind conditions. McLuckey said that 150 planes every day request permission to fly the Russian routes, but only 50 are allowed.

This is because the Russian Far East for navigational purposes is treated like an ocean -- planes are spaced 20 minutes apart to give them wide latitude for error. The new satellite system would dramatically cut the spacing time between planes, letting more aircraft fly the more economical routes.

"The Northern Pacific routes from an FAA point of view are very congested," Cooper said.

In the interim, while the Rockwell project is being developed, the U.S. company Aeronautics Radio Inc. has signed a $2.5 million contract with Russia to install radar for a Japan-U.S. route over Siberia.

The Rockwell project also will help Russia develop a business plan for civilian use of satellite navigation and to study the technology transfers that will be required for the project. The U.S. company Hughes Aircraft will also build a ground station in the Far East to receive signals from the aircraft as part of the project.