ATM Modernization

Editor’s Note

By Bill Carey | March 1, 2009

ADS-B Advances

Somewhat under the radar (I hate to start with a cliché, but the days may be numbered for radar)... FAA’s NextGen air-traffic control modernization is progressing. Despite all that has transpired in the last year in aviation and beyond, the deployment of the ground infrastructure for Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), one of the supporting legs of NextGen, continues apace.

You may recall a recent interview I conducted with John Kefaliotis of ITT Corp., the company chosen by FAA in August 2007 to build the ADS-B ground infrastructure ( Avionics, January 2009, p. 10). Kefaliotis described the first year of the contract as "fast-paced," culminating last August with a declaration of initial operating capability for 11 ADS-B radio sites in southern Florida. In November, FAA commissioned those sites as "in-service" for broadcasting "essential" traffic and weather information to pilots — the green light for national deployment.

More recently, I had the opportunity to speak with principals of Thales North America Air Traffic Management (ATM), a key member of the ITT industry team assembled for the ADS-B contract. Thales is supplying the dual-link 1090 MHz and Universal Access Transceiver (UAT) radios for the planned 794 ground stations, most of which will be equipped with two radios. Following the November commissioning decision by FAA, the company received an order from ITT for 333 more radios, worth $13.6 million.

Thales ATM executives were in Washington, D.C., in late January for what was described as an internal, global kick-off meeting for 2009. At the conclusion of that event, we met around a table in a deserted banquet room at the Hotel Monaco downtown.

Planes may be putting down in the Hudson River due to bird strikes, but the ADS-B ground infrastructure deployment is moving forward at speed, the Thales contingent told me, echoing Kefaliotis’s earlier assessment.

"It’s going ahead. The team has been hitting every milestone on time with the FAA," said Paul Kahn, managing director of Thales’s navigation and airport solutions business. "The three key partners — ITT, Thales and [network provider] AT&T have been working well together. You’ve got Thales radios installed at AT&T sites under ITT’s leadership, which the FAA has accepted into service in southern Florida."

Having commissioned a network of ADS-B radio sites providing "essential" services, the industry team is moving now to provide the "critical" services called for in the FAA contract. Critical services involve the presentation of ADS-B targets on controller displays and ADS-R — for "rebroadcast" — or translation of signals from large aircraft equipped with 1090 MHz transponders to smaller, UAT-equipped aircraft, and vice versa, through the ground stations.

"It was designed in the architecture of the radios from the beginning, and we’re in the process of doing a design [qualification] with ITT to include that additional functionality," said Wayne Dohlman, president and CEO of Thales ATM in the United States. Once demonstrated in the lab, ADS-R will go through site and service acceptance testing in the field.

Much of the credit for advancing ADS-B, of course, resides with FAA. The oft-maligned agency solicited and evaluated technical proposals, awarded a contract and commissioned the first radio sites in the absence of reauthorization legislation that would have provided long-term funding clarity, and under interim leadership since Marion Blakey’s term as administrator expired in September 2007. Blakey oversaw a fundamental restructuring of FAA that created the Air Traffic Organization (ATO), which is leading the NextGen effort. In January, after 14 years, FAA’s air-traffic control system modernization was dropped from the "High-Risk List" of troubled government programs compiled by the Government Accountability Office.

This January also saw the quiet departure of Robert A. "Bobby" Sturgell, who announced the ADS-B contract award as acting FAA administrator. Nominated by President George W. Bush to succeed Blakey, Sturgell — a former airline pilot, naval aviator and right-hand man to Blakey going back to her tenure at the National Transportation Safety Board — never won confirmation from a U.S. Senate controlled by Democrats. That’s life in the nation’s capital.

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