Q&A: Raytheon’s Matt Gilligan on Reimagining Air Traffic Surveillance

Air traffic management is fast developing. In addition to the forecast growth of air traffic movements in the coming years, new and smaller aircraft will populate the skies, posing new challenges and requirements in the context of aging surveillance infrastructure in need of replacement or augmentation.

We asked several questions on this topic to Matthew Gilligan, vice president of Navigation and Modernization Solutions. He leads the modernization of mission-critical systems and a portfolio of air traffic management products, including Skyler, a radar solution that provides precise data, rendering a high-resolution airspace picture in a short amount of time.

What is the status quo in terms of weather monitoring and air traffic surveillance infrastructure?

Conventional airport surveillance radars cover an area of approximately 60 miles and focus mainly on the cone around the airport and the higher elevations within the zone. Their area of interest is where aircraft are flying, and they provide updates about every five seconds. They are mainly looking for larger aircraft. From a weather standpoint, the radars that are in the vicinity of airports and those that cover a given regional area provide course data at long-ranges. They work fine for what is flying in the current airspace.

How does Skyler differentiate itself from the weather monitoring and air traffic surveillance technology of today?

The capabilities that Skyler addresses include not only conventional aircraft but also new entrant aircraft, whether they be drones for cargo delivery or inspections or other urban air mobility (UAM) vehicles. These new entrants will often be taking off and landing from non-traditional sites, not just airports. They will also be conducting more frequent flights at lower altitudes and faster maneuvers. UAMs will be interested in what we call ‘micro-weather’, which is the weather in the immediate area where they will be operating and not necessarily the weather at 30,000 ft. Skyler provides low-altitude surveillance and highly accurate weather monitoring with high refresh rates. Skyler can also be installed on existing infrastructure and is low cost. The enabling capability of Skyler is that it is software-defined: it supports both the shape of the beam and the ability for the beam to track targets actively. This makes the system extremely flexible by taking the same hardware platform and adapting it to multiple missions simultaneously. When Skyler radars are set up in a grid, it is possible to have a collaborative and adaptive network that cost-efficiently provides low altitude surveillance and micro-weather monitoring in the whole area of interest where the new entrant aircraft will be flying.

Where are primary radar solutions headed in the context of an ever-larger embracement of satellite-based navigation?

The likes of satellite-based navigation and ADS-B rely on two primary conditions; one is that everyone’s equipment is functioning, and the other is that it is cooperative. One benefit of having a Skyler network is that it does not require these two conditions to be met. It provides active surveillance by detecting non-cooperative aircraft or hazards, such as a flock of birds, which are difficult to detect otherwise. In the event an aircraft’s equipment is not functioning, it is imperative to have a backup system that is affordable and offers increased capabilities.

Today we have several legacy systems that need intensive maintenance. The value proposition of Skyler is that it fills the void of all these various legacy systems with one single platform. There are both aviation and non-aviation radar systems in the market, and all have their funding challenges. It is not just the case of replacing or supplementing existing radars. What is required is a solution across the entire domain. In the end, it is about supporting a much more extensive network that provides higher value to a broader region.

Can you illustrate some of Skyler’s user case scenarios and the benefits it provides to air traffic management safety?

Several universities across the country are using Skyler prototypes to assist with weather research. Earlier this year, the Skyler prototype used by Stony Brook University to look over Long Island was cued by a satellite to lightning activity in a particular area. Skyler was used to survey that area and revealed there were four waterspouts that no weather radar in the area identified. An urban air taxi operator flying in the area would need to know of such phenomena. We conceived Skyler as an enabling infrastructure for low-level aircraft, in particular drones, to be able to fly safely.

Of particular interest is also the need for situational awareness about drone presence around airports. Skyler fills this gap as well, spotting small drone-size vehicles flying in the vicinity of airports at a high refresh rate. Current conventional airport radar cannot equally guarantee this kind of situational awareness.

Another use case to air traffic management today has to do with the current trend toward remote or virtual tower operations. In these situations, video cameras are used so an air traffic controller can look at a set of screens remotely as if one were looking outside of a window at the tower. If the use of video cameras is combined with Skyler, the system will make sure the air traffic controller understands the spatial relationships that a camera system cannot. Furthermore, this capability will significantly improve the safety of remote tower operations.
Learn more about Skyler radar technology

Matthew Gilligan holds both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and an MBA from Boston University. His career with Raytheon has included domestic and international large-scale program and product line management; system design and development with an emphasis on communications and security systems and radiofrequency/infrared sensor technology; complex system integration and program logistics. Prior to his current position as the vice president of Navigation and Modernization Solutions, he served as vice president of the GPS Next-Generation Operational Control System (GPS OCX) program and as vice president of the Navigation and Environmental Solutions mission area.