Everyday, a multitude of aircraft traverse thousands of miles across the globe, ensuring that passengers and cargo efficiently and safely reach their destinations. For an aircraft to accurately reach its destination while maintaining peak efficiency in terms of time and fuel, it relies on a number of navigation systems. Aerial navigation has consistently evolved over the past decades, with new and improved technology constantly bolstering the resources that are at a pilot’s fingertips. In this blog, we will discuss the three primary types of commercial navigation systems that are used by most pilots, allowing you to better understand how airplane navigation is conducted.
For most modern flights, pilots rely on a Flight Management System (FMS) or Computer (FMC) for establishing a predetermined route that has been created through analysis and planning. With display screens in the cockpit, pilots can then have their route displayed as a moving map that is easy to monitor over time. These screens are very useful when they are available as they can also be used to convey other pertinent information, such as where other airports and aircraft are located, if there is high terrain below, or if bad weather is coming up. Regardless of whether display screens are provided to pilots, there still needs to be a navigation system that conducts readings.
The most modern and well-known navigation system is the Global Positioning System (GPS). As a staple of commercial airline flight, GPS ensures the most accurate measurements that allow for aircraft to perform maneuvers with ease. Due to the use of a global satellite system surrounding the atmosphere of earth, the GPS can reach an accuracy of 0.1 nautical miles. As GPS is still somewhat limited in its capabilities, it is only fully relied on during primary navigation flight phases. In some instances, there may be areas where pilots will face GPS black spots where navigation suffers, leading to the usefulness of having other navigation systems as backup.
The Inertial Reference System (IRS) is another navigation tool that is fully self-contained, meaning that it does not require any external reference to conduct measurements. Such systems consist of accelerometers and gyroscopes, both of which are able to detect movement and acceleration across three axes. All the IRS requires for proper measurements is to have Latitude and Longitude measurements provided during the start of the flight, and then the rest is conducted by the system itself. While not as accurate as GPS in terms of navigation, IRS is extremely useful in the instance that the GPS fails and measurements are still needed for safety.
The last primary type of navigation system includes radio aids, and they are ground-based systems that communicate with aircraft through radio beams. With such beacons, aircraft can determine their range and direction, and the onboard computer system analyzes received data to calculate location. Based on the functionality of radio aids, accuracy increases as more radio signals are detected and computed.
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