The December 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

Lost Radio Contact Leaves Pilots On Their Own

Communications error wreaks havoc in the Los Angeles air control system

5 min read

It was an air traffic controller's worst nightmare. Without warning, on Tuesday, 14 September, at about 5 p.m. Pacific daylight time, air traffic controllers lost voice contact with 400 airplanes they were tracking over the southwestern United States. Planes started to head toward one another, something that occurs routinely under careful control of the air traffic controllers, who keep airplanes safely apart. But now the controllers had no way to redirect the planes' courses.

"You could see airplanes getting awfully close but you're powerless. You can do nothing about it," said Hamid Ghaffari, an air traffic controller at the Los Angeles Air Route Traffic Control Center in Palmdale, Calif., where the crisis occurred. The center is responsible for airplanes flying above 13 000 feet (4000 meters) in 460 000 square kilometers of airspace over Southern California and parts of Arizona, Nevada, and Utah, including the busy McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, Nev.

Keep Reading ↓Show less

This article is for IEEE members only. Join IEEE to access our full archive.

Join the world’s largest professional organization devoted to engineering and applied sciences and get access to all of Spectrum’s articles, podcasts, and special reports. Learn more →

If you're already an IEEE member, please sign in to continue reading.

Membership includes:

  • Get unlimited access to IEEE Spectrum content
  • Follow your favorite topics to create a personalized feed of IEEE Spectrum content
  • Save Spectrum articles to read later
  • Network with other technology professionals
  • Establish a professional profile
  • Create a group to share and collaborate on projects
  • Discover IEEE events and activities
  • Join and participate in discussions

Economics Drives Ray-Gun Resurgence

Laser weapons, cheaper by the shot, should work well against drones and cruise missiles

4 min read
In an artist’s rendering, a truck is shown with five sets of wheels—two sets for the cab, the rest for the trailer—and a box on the top of the trailer, from which a red ray is projected on an angle, upward, ending in the silhouette of an airplane, which is being destroyed

Lockheed Martin's laser packs up to 300 kilowatts—enough to fry a drone or a plane.

Lockheed Martin

The technical challenge of missile defense has been compared with that of hitting a bullet with a bullet. Then there is the still tougher economic challenge of using an expensive interceptor to kill a cheaper target—like hitting a lead bullet with a golden one.

Maybe trouble and money could be saved by shooting down such targets with a laser. Once the system was designed, built, and paid for, the cost per shot would be low. Such considerations led planners at the Pentagon to seek a solution from Lockheed Martin, which has just delivered a 300-kilowatt laser to the U.S. Army. The new weapon combines the output of a large bundle of fiber lasers of varying frequencies to form a single beam of white light. This laser has been undergoing tests in the lab, and it should see its first field trials sometime in 2023. General Atomics, a military contractor in San Diego, is also developing a laser of this power for the Army based on what’s known as the distributed-gain design, which has a single aperture.

Keep Reading ↓Show less