Beaming

A new aircraft landing system has the U.S. and Thai armies on the same frequency.

ON A QUIET SPRING DAY, officials of the Royal Thai Army and four branches of the United States military gather with engineers from across the country at Lavon North airport northeast of Dallas. At the end of a narrow runway, perched atop a yellow crate, sits the object they’ve come to see: a bright-red ball that sends high-frequency microwave beams at the speed of light to a receiver in an airplane’s cockpit. The plane is supposed to lock onto the beam and land safely—and indeed, a few minutes after a model plane takes off with a receiver duct-taped to its left wing, the ball shoots an invisible beam, and the plane touches down flawlessly.

OMAR, or the Optical Microwave Approach and Ranging System, is the brainchild of 65-year-old Aubrey Chapman, the executive vice president of engineering at Austin-based Focused Energy Holdings. It works much like the human eye: A light-refracting lens squeezes radar- and microwave-frequency energy the way an eye focuses wide bands of light down for vision—only instead of optical rods and cones, the lenses use wafer-thin computer chips stacked on top of one another to receive and transmit energy. “It’s simple,” says Chapman’s 56-year-old brother-in-law, John Walter, the CEO of Focused Energy. “That’s the beauty of it.” A key facet of OMAR is that its beams are skinny—“about this big,” Walter notes, pulling a pen out of his pocket. Size matters, because skinny beams allow for greater accuracy. Unlike satellite dishes, which spray the atmosphere with microwaves the way an aerosol can sprays deodorant, these “needle beams” are point-to-point. And they’re workhorses: The technology behind each beam can be used to handle up to 11,000 telephone calls at one time. Until now, only fiber-optic cable has offered such capacity.

That’s why interest in OMAR is so intense. The U.S. and Thai armies want to use the system to land reconnaissance planes, the unmanned, crash-prone, camera-equipped aircraft that spy behind battle lines, and the U.S. Special Operating Forces is testing it with manned airplanes. Walter thinks OMAR could also be used by commercial airports. It’s more reliable than traditional landing systems because microwave beams aren’t ad-versely affected by inclement weather, as radar beams are. It’s cheaper: The cost of a typical landing system hovers around $10 million in equipment and land for a medium-sized airport, while a single OMAR could handle the same airport for about $200,000. And OMAR is better for the environment, Walter says, because it sends out only a small fraction of the electromagnetic radiation that landing and navigation dishes, satellite dishes, and microwave towers do.

Walter and Chapman are waiting to receive the remaining patents on OMAR, and they’ll be happy when they do: They’ve spent eleven years and $6 million of their own money on the invention. “It’d be nice to drive around the country and see balls in place of microwave towers,” Walter says. “Maybe draw a little face on them, some eyes, and say, ‘Smile.’”

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