From what I understand the wide area multilateration (WAM) technique is similar to Loran-C but reversed:

  • The aircraft sends a signal (ADS-B transponder) which is received by several ground stations.

  • The actual transit time is ignored, but the differences in time of reception by the stations are computed to provide the horizontal position of the aircraft. Like for Loran, the locus of possible positions on a plan is an hyperbolic curve when two receivers are used.

  • 3 receivers deliver 3 intersecting hyperbolic curves that can be sufficient (in theory) to determine a fix.

    enter image description here
    From Multilateration & ADS-B Executive Reference Guide at multilateration.com

  • In a 3D space, the curves are replaced by hyperboloids.

Apart from a good old atomic clock on the ground, the system seems outrageously simple and can afford some degree of line of sight obstruction.

WAM can work by passively listening to the ADS-B transmitters. Its accuracy is comparable to current secondary surveillance radar (SSR), while the required ground stations use simple vertical antennas instead of a relatively complex rotating antenna with the familiar parabolic reflector. This solution seems vigorously pushed forward by Eurocontrol and FAA.

It seems a promising positioning technology, still it appears only once on the site.


What are the intended uses of a system which seems redundant with ABS-B/GNSS/SSR? Are aircraft in the world already using WAM?

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ 3 receivers is not sufficient. You need at least 4. If you have receivers A, B and C, You can create 3 paraboloids: P(tA-tB), P(tA-tC) and P(tB-tC). However, the information in the third parabola is exactly the same as in the difference between the first two, so it doesn't bring you anything mathematically. To solve the problem, you need 4 measurements. This allows you to create a set of 4 linearly independent equations which allows you to solve the problem of the 4 unknowns (X,Y,Z, transmission time). The transmission time you don't explicitly need but you can't do without. $\endgroup$ – DeltaLima Sep 26 '16 at 11:49
  • $\begingroup$ Oops, yes of course hyperbolas (actually hyperboloids in 3D) $\endgroup$ – DeltaLima Sep 26 '16 at 13:18

Wide Area Multilateration (WAM) is used as an ATC surveillance system. Like Secondary Surveillance Radar (SSR) it is classified as a cooperative independent surveillance system; the aircraft has to cooperate (i.e. an active transponder) but position is determined independent from data sent from the aircraft (unlike e.g. ADS-B).

A WAM system relies on Time Difference of Arrival (TDoA) measurements to determine the position of aircraft. At least 4 receivers with synchronised timing are needed to calculate the position of a transmitted signal. In practice WAM systems have a redundancy built in to them and are operated with more than 4 receivers. It can operate purely passively but usually the system will interrogate aircraft transponders to ensure a sufficient update rate can be maintained. This is a downside of the system; with its omnidirectional interrogators it is often considered as using much capacity on 1030 MHz, causing an increased transponder load (every incoming interrogation needs to be processed by a transponder, even if it is intended for another aircraft and no reply is to be given).

The system is used as an alternative to secondary radar. The installation of a receiver is much cheaper than a radar, but the life cycle cost of the surveillance system depends also on site renting costs, communication costs and maintenance cost. Maintenance tends to be cheaper (no rotating radar head), but communication is more expensive (more lines). Overall, WAM is a cost effective alternative to SSR.

WAM is able to achieve very high accuracy and high update rates when a sufficient number of sensors are installed. For example, German Air Traffic control DFS operates the Precise Approach Monitoring system in the Frankfurt TMA with 36 receivers and achieves and accuracy better than 25 meters with an update rate of 1 second.

In mountainous terrain, valleys can be covered by installing receivers on mountain peaks, which is much cheaper than covering it all by radars. Austrian Air Traffic Control AUSTROCONTROL operates a nationwide system consisting of 60 receivers.

In terrain that is difficult to access for maintenance or where there is no infrastructure to install radars WAM may also provide a solution. On the North Sea both Dutch (LVNL) and British (NATS) Air Traffic Control operate WAM systems to provide air taffic surveillance services to helicopters operating on the oil platforms. Receivers are installed on oil platforms.

WAM is used around the world, other deployments include for example Afganistan, Australia, Denmark, Ghana, Namibia, USA and many more.

The system can at the same time provide an ADS-B data stream from received ADS-B messages and can add extra security checks by comparing measurements of the data sources.


A new surveillance system introduced, called multilateration or Wide Area Multilateration (WAM), is now allowing air traffic controllers to track aircraft along the difficult approach to Juneau, Alaska—a mountainous area where radar was not possible.—FAA

It allows areas where no radar can be installed due to high terrain to have radar service.

Flying low in high terrain areas also affects the GPS coverage, compromising the ADS-B reporting to ATC.

Since ADS-B relies on the plane knowing its position, WAM will enhance the ATC coverage when it's most needed allowing an increase in airport capacities where terrain is an issue. And to my understanding faster refresh rates elsewhere en-route.

Like the mentioned Loran-C, the 4 antennas are needed for a fix:

  • 2 antennas reveal a hyperboloid where the aircraft is at
  • 3 antennas reveal two intersecting hyperboloids with the fix somewhere along the common curve, like this image
  • 4 antennas reveal the height.

It can be independent of GNSS (at least for outages up to a day or two) and isn't relying on the airborne equipment correctly reporting position, as pure ADS-B does. It's also potentially a lot cheaper than SSR.


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