The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) plans to solicit bids in March for the first phase of its Next Generation Air Transportation System with the intent of awarding a contract in July 2007.

The key to keeping that timetable will be approval of the agency’s 2007 budget request, which includes $80 million for implementing the program beyond the current test sites, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey said June 28 during her presentation at an event in Washington dubbed “Next Generation Air Transportation System Day.”

The Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) system has been tested in pilot phases for years in locations such as Louisville, Ky., and Juno, Alaska. The program relies on satellites to give pilots more accurate information on traffic and weather in the cockpit, replacing radar with GPS as the major source for its data.

Full implementation of the system is not expected to be complete until approximately 2014.

“The clock is ticking, and we’ve hit some very impressive milestones,” Blakey said. “It’s very concrete; it’s very real-world.”

The system is designed to automatically transmit information without requiring an operator or pilot, deriving positioning from GPS satellites that provide more accurate information regarding such variables as altitude, distance and speed, said Rick Castaldo, a systems engineer for the ADS-B program office, who attended the event.

ADS-B relies on the existing group of GPS satellites, but when the next-generation GPS 3 satellites are in place, they will add additional integrity and robustness to the system, Castaldo said.

Norman Mineta, secretary of FAA’s parent organization, the U.S. Department of Transportation, called ADS-B the “backbone of the next-generation system.”

During his remarks at the event, Mineta noted that when ADS-B was tested in Alaska, it dropped airplane accident rates by 49 percent. “The results are very impressive,” Mineta said.

ADS-B is part of the government’s overall plan for a Next Generation Air Transportation System, which updates the existing system and looks forward as far as 2025. NASA is in charge of doing research to help aid the technology development of the system at large.

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin said at the event that the agency has a variety of goals for the system, looking at such factors as improving aircraft safety, making aircraft quieter and improving fuel emissions.

“We’re proud of our aeronautics heritage,” Griffin said of the agency’s role in the project. “Aeronautics will always be a vital part of what we do, at least if I have anything to say about it.”

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation aviation subcommittee is scheduled to hold a hearing July 25 to discuss the Next Generation Air Transportation System at large. Blakey is expected to be the lead witness at the hearing.