Maryland defense contractors looking to diversify their markets are reaping rewards from a $16 billion effort to improve the safety and efficiency of the nation's air traffic control system.
Hunt Valley-based AAI Corp. recently landed a contract worth more than $200 million to produce the Automated Surface Observation System, which will provide instantaneous weather information to pilots and air traffic controllers.
The Westinghouse Electronics Systems Group in Linthicum has contracts worth more than $1 billion to produce four kinds of radar systems for commercial airports around the country.
These are only a small part of the complex National Airspace Systems Plan, which the Federal Aviation Administration adopted in 1981. Hundreds of companies are involved in overhauling systems that provide communications, radar, weather surveillance and computerized flight information.
When first introduced, the project was scheduled to be completed in 10 years. Now the plan is open-ended and will incorporate new technology as it becomes available.
Bethesda-based Martin Marietta Corp. has been awarded a $921 million contract to integrate the plan. The contract is so important to the company that the Air Traffic Systems Division, which oversees the project, was removed from the Information Systems Group and now reports directly to the company's president instead.
Putting the plan together without disrupting air traffic is a major problem, according to Robert Vaage, deputy program manager for systems engineering and integrated contracts at Martin Marietta.
Although the company prides itself on its ability to integrate information systems, he said, the FAA job is particularly challenging because current airport systems must be kept operating while new ones are tested and installed.
"It's sometimes been compared to changing tires on a bus while it's rolling down the highway," Vaage explained.
Longtime defense contractors are looking to the FAA project and other high-tech civilian work as the defense buildup of the Reagan administration gives way to new federal budget realities.
Defense Department purchases in Maryland peaked at $4.2 billion in 1985. They've been declining ever since, to about $3.8 billion in 1989 (the last year for which full figures are available). Success in the Persian Gulf war notwithstanding, Congress is expected to cut back even more on expensive weapons systems to reduce the federal deficit.
"This project will help stabilize our earnings and growth prospects for the coming year," said AAI spokesman Adam Fein. "It will help balance out the inherent cycle in defense spending."
The ASOS system that AAI is working on replaces the current national network of manual surface weather observation stations. The system will relay messages to air traffic controllers or to pilots reporting wind speeds and direction, temperature, dew point, atmospheric pressure, visibility, cloud height and precipitation.
Experts estimate that 70 percent of aviation accidents are weather-related. ASOS will provide more accurate weather information and help reduce these accidents, said Steve Short, ASOS program manager for the National Weather Service.
Besides aiding aircraft landings, the systems will be used to produce more accurate weather reports for the public.
AAI hopes to reap benefits from the project for years to come. AAI will produce up to 1,700 ASOS systems over the next several years. The first 55 will be installed at Midwestern airports this summer.
In addition to aiding commercial aircraft, ASOS will be installed at naval air stations throughout the country. The Air Force also expects to buy the system.
About 120 employees are assigned to ASOS, company officials said, and more will be hired to work at airports where the system is installed.
The contract will boost the percentage of AAI's non-defense related business from about 5 percent to about 20 percent -- a major step in helping the company reach its goal of 35 percent non-defense related business by 1993.
For AAI, the weather project was a case of adapting the company's technical expertise to a new market.
"We weren't really in the weather business, but we had built a lot of instrumentations," said L.M. "Mac" McClernan, product development manager for atmospheric and hydrologic sciences at AAI.
AAI already is looking to market the system overseas. It is also investigating possible spin-offs, such as providing weather information to help municipalities decide how to respond to snow and helping farmers figure out when to plant, harvest and fertilize.
At Martin Marietta, the FAA contract provides work for about 500 company employees and another 500 who work for subcontractors, according to Vaage. About half of the Martin Marietta workers involved in the project were hired after the contract was awarded in 1984. Vaage said Martin Marietta intends to compete for future business when its current 10-year contract expires in 1994.