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Buying assets in rain, snow and sunshine

The air traffic control revolution will be televised.

Photograph: Getty Images

Remember Enron? Back in the late 1990s, a few short years before it filed what was then the largest bankruptcy case in US history, the energy behemoth began trading in weather derivatives. In the same way that it made millions manipulating the electricity market in California, Enron wanted to develop complex financial instruments to hedge against adverse or unexpected weather conditions.

The fact that the underlying asset (rain, snow, temperature) had no obvious value that could be used to price the derivative was problematic, but by the time Enron imploded in a wave of accounting scandals, its Enron Weather subsidiary was turning a profit. The message was clear: big business was no longer trading in tangible commodities such as natural gas alone; in the future, everything, the abstract, the ethereal – even the elements themselves – could potentially be bought and sold.

Fast forward a decade and the UK’s communications regulator Ofcom has just produced £2.34bn out of thin air, so to speak, by auctioning off the new 4G mobile spectrum. From 2014, smartphone and tablet computer users can look forward to download speeds up to 100Mbps, five to ten times quicker than current 3G networks.

But while politicians continue to lock horns over a reported Treasury shortfall of £1bn from the auction and tech-heads debate the potential merits and pitfalls of broadband’s brave new world, a critical upgrade project undertaken by NATS, the UK’s leading supplier of air traffic control (ATC) services, has quietly slipped under the radar.

The organisation has become the first operator to future-proof its ATC systems against potential interference from 4G telecommunications masts.

“The impact of the 4G network on safety is fundamental in that we wouldn’t necessarily be able to detect all aircraft in our airspace,” says Graeme Henderson, NATS’ general manager for engineering policy and design.

NATS has solved the problem by upgrading its existing radars with filters that suppress the electrical waves generated by the 4G frequencies, and is offering support and engineering expertise to other ATC operators.

With aviation passenger numbers in Europe forecast to almost quadruple by 2030, competition between commercial and government-sponsored entities for the UK’s already overcrowded airwaves is set to become even more intense, as are calls to overhaul the nation’s aging radar system, which is struggling to deal with interference from 21st-century phenomena such as onshore wind turbines.

One radical solution is multi-static primary surveillance radar, which works by using existing TV aerials around the UK. Each transmitter will receive the identical TV signal but at a slightly different time due to interactions with nearby air traffic. The received signals are then compared to the original broadcast, and the difference is used to pinpoint the position of the aircraft.

The EU is already looking to release more spectrum for next-generation 5G mobile services by 2020; multi-static primary surveillance technology would free up that space, meaning the UK Government could sell off bandwidth currently used by airports.

Radar systems, like everything else in the commercial aviation industry, rarely remain static for long.

Read the full feature here:  http://www.airport-technology.com/features/featuremobile-spectrum-nats-radar-uk-air-traffic-control/