How does Aircraft Navigation System Work?

An airplane global positioning system (GPS) is currently the most efficient, economical, and time prioritized way to navigate the skies. Created in 1973 by the Department of Defense, this global satellite navigation system provides time information and geolocation to GPS receivers worldwide. Utilizing motion sensors, rotation sensors and a computer to calculate velocity, position, and even the orientation of an object in motion (without external references). Radio aid is then used to send navigation signals, GPS data and inertial reference system information to the Flight Management System (FMS) or Black Box of an aircraft. The FMS itself has its own built-in navigation aids, airways needed for the route, and a complete database of airports. Once an optimal route is determined the proposed route is sent to the Air Route Traffic Center for analysis to determine if the current air traffic can accommodate the route. The approval of a route by the Air Route Traffic Center is then relayed to the pilot during pre-flight take-off for final route confirmation.

Early forms of aircraft navigation include techniques like pilotage and dead reckoning. Pilotage is a simple technique to visually navigate through means of identifying landmarks that include rivers, cities, mountains, towers, and lakes and comparing these markers to printed charts. Dead reckoning is a process used to determine the distance between checkpoints and the aircraft location by calculating time and distance bases at a specific speed.  Pilotage and dead reckoning are not the most efficient methods of navigation but when used together can increase productivity.

Pre-GPS era, post visual/papermap era, pilots relied on Non-Directional Beacons (NBDs) and VHF Omnidirectional Range (VOR) systems. NBD is a ground-based low-frequency radio beacon transmitter used as an instrumental approach for offshore platforms and airports. An NBD gives off an omnidirectional signal that is then received by an Automatic Directional Finder (ADF) instrument located on an aircraft. The ADF instrument deciphers the signal and tells the pilot the location of the beacon and the pilot’s location relative to the beacon. The NBD frequency (transmitting 24/7 uninterrupted) that enters the ADF instrument gives the pilot exact directions to the station. The VOR system is comprised of a VOR ground station, an instrument that displays and interprets data and an aircraft antenna. Using this system a pilot can view the aircraft position relative to the beacon’s transmission from the ground station. There are approximately 1,000 VOR stations in the United States and are used mostly in connection with specific routes and airways in the sky.

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