NASA’s SATS – success squandered?

NASA needs a few successes. Its aeronautics research is in decline and disarray; the Space Shuttle is again grounded and the Space Station out on a limb; and its Apollo-esque “back to the Moon” vision is being greeted by as much scepticism and derision as shock and awe.

NASA had a success earlier this year, but it took place at Danville in rural Virginia and not many people noticed. The success was the public demonstration of the Small Aircraft Transportation System (SATS) - touted as a new mode of public transportation using small aircraft, like very light jets, to provide regular air-taxi service between thousands of small non-tower airports across the USA.

The Danville event was lauded by the Federal Aviation Administration as the first demonstration of technologies key to its next-generation air transport system – but what has happened to SATS since then? The answer is not a lot. The five-year project has ended, the NCAM consortium of state, academic and industry partners that worked with NASA is being disbanded, and the concept is fast disappearing into the bureaucratic maze that is the FAA.

SATS grew out of another NASA success, the Advanced General Aviation Technology Experiments (AGATE) project, which developed the avionics that have since revolutionised GA aircraft – the integrated flightdecks now available in almost every Cessna, Cirrus, Diamond or Piper light aircraft. Will SATS have a similar impact? For now it looks unlikely. AGATE involved only the aircraft. SATS involves the aircraft, the airport and the airspace system.

Supporters of SATS want someone – possibly one of the regional SATSlabs formed by forward-minded state aviation officials to work on the project – to pick up the ball and run with it; to set up a SATS “model airport” and prove over an extended period of time that the concept is usable, reliable, profitable and safe.

With all the frustration over scheduled airline travel these days, and with all the interest generated by the new breed of very light jets and all the entrepreneurial energy and equity being spent on developing air-taxi business models – surely there is some community of like-minded aircraft makers, service providers and airport owners out there that is prepared to take this idea one crucial step forward?

But don’t look to NASA. It’s mind is on more distant things.

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