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Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Road to NextGen

The troubled multi-billion-dollar, multi-year project to modernize the NAS is partially operational in various regions of the United States, but it faces a slate of challenges

By Robert W. Moorman

Despite glitches to some programs and the ongoing threat of budget cuts from sequestration, NextGen is proceeding in stages toward its full implementation around 2025.

Avionics Magazine interviewed prime contractors and FAA staff regarding this mammoth undertaking to eventually replace an aging ground-based system for a satellite-based arrangement that uses GPS and other technology to shorten routes, save time and fuel and help FAA to deal with significant growth expected in air travel over the next several years. Increased use of Performance-Based Navigation (PBN) will give airlines more flexibility to fly more direct routes.

FAA expects NextGen to provide fuel savings of $2.3 million per year eventually. Yet savings are being realized already with NextGen. JetBlue, for example, has started allowing pilots to take a more efficient curved path into runways 13L and 13R at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Additionally, as part of the FAA-backed Greener Skies initiative over Seattle, airlines are using NextGen-related precision routes to knock 4 to 8 minutes off flight times, providing projected annual savings of more than $13 million.

The sequester, congressionally mandated budget cuts, prompted FAA to cut $637 million in fiscal year 2013, although the Airport Improvement Program is exempt from the sequester.

“It is important that we here in the United States stay the course with NextGen, despite the fiscal challenges,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a recent speech.

However, the challenges are many for this multi-billion-dollar program. Department of Transportation Inspector General (DoT IG) Calvin Scovel III testified before a House committee in July that the lack of an executable plan and unresolved critical design decisions are delaying the advancement of NextGen.

“While FAA has taken important steps to improve NextGen’s management, such as establishing a new program management office, the agency had made little progress in shifting from planning to implementation and delivering benefits to airspace users,” Scovel testified.

At present, there are seven NextGen programs in the implementation phase that will deliver new capabilities for all phases of flight by 2018, FAA said.

Among those key programs under four prime contractors are: the development and building of automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) ground stations by ITT Exelis; Data Communications Integrated Services (DCIS) program by Harris Corp.; the En Route Automation Modernization Program (ERAM) by Lockheed Martin; and Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS) from Raytheon.

ADS-B

ITT Exelis, in partnership with FAA and first-tier vendors, is responsible for deploying the ground infrastructure, which includes radio stations and service delivery points equipment that support satellite-based surveillance of aircraft, a key aspect of NextGen. Under the ADS-B program, Exelis delivers four services: ADS-B; ADS-R (Rebroadcast), Traffic Information Broadcast Services (TIS-B), and Flight Information Services Broadcast (FIS-B).

The ground infrastructure consists of radio stations deployed throughout the nation, three major processing centers, service delivery point (SDP) equipment installed in FAA air traffic control facilities and connecting networking equipment. This infrastructure collects airborne ADS-B reports from the radio stations and delivers the data to FAA facilities for ATC purposes, and it collects FAA non-ADS-B surveillance data and weather and aeronautical information to create broadcasts transmitted from ADS-B radio stations for the purpose of enhancing airborne pilot situational awareness.

Exelis has installed 522 ground stations in the contiguous 48-states as of late June with 80 more to be deployed by mid-2014.

“We will complete all radio station deployment by the end of 2013 and finish Hawaii and the U.S. territories by the second quarter of 2014,” said John Kefaliotis, ITT Exelis vice president of next generation air transportation systems. Implementation of the systems in Alaska could extend into 2015. Exelis claims the contract is on schedule and within budget.

ITT’s contract is based upon enroute, terminal and surface service volumes. The enroute service volumes corresponds with FAA enroute traffic control centers, while the terminal service volumes corresponds to FAA’s Terminal Radar Approach Control Facilities (TRACON). The surface service volumes correspond with the 35 largest U.S. airports.

The service delivery point equipment placed in ATC centers, through which ITT Exelis delivers ADS-B data to FAA, and collects radar-based and multilateration-based surveillance data is moving along; 161 installations out of 170 are completed, said Kefaliotis. All SDP installation will be complete by the end of 2013.

Providing coverage in a service volume is called the Implementation Service Acceptance Test (ISAT). As of late June 2013, Exelis had completed ISATs for 253 of 312 service volumes.

Under the ADS-B contract, Exelis is also commercializing the data collected over the surveillance network and creating applications for airports, airlines and other users. The product, NextVue, a combination of Exelis’ web-based Symphony OpsVue and Harmony from Metron Corp., visualizes all flights in the NAS and monitors and alerts for diversion management and irregular operations.

Exelis is also marketing ADS-B squitter units for airport vehicles that can be tracked by air traffic control. It has created a mobile application so the vehicle operator can see where he/she is on the airport.

Datacomm, NVS, SWIM

Harris was awarded FAA’s $331 million DCIS contract in September 2012, as part of the NextGen modernization initiative. Harris, with its partners Thales, GE Aviation and an undisclosed airline partner, bested competing bids from a Lockheed Martin-led team and an ITT Exelis-led team.

Data Comm will be rolled out in 2015 in the tower domain and between 2018-2022 for the enroute environment. It will replace voice communications with data messages sent between the air traffic control tower and cockpit with the goal of creating a more efficient communication methodology and more efficient operation. The DCIS contract will provide ground-to-ground and air-to-ground segments of the data communication system.

FAA and Harris have already begun Data Comm trial activities at both Memphis, Tenn., and Newark, N.J., airports. The trials updates should come in the fall.

By 2014, all the major subsystems that form the datacom messaging thread for the tower environment will begin year-long integration testing at FAA’s William J. Hughes Technical Center (WJHTC) in Atlantic City, N.J., and at the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma City, according to John O’Sullivan, vice president of Mission Critical Networks, Harris Government Communications Systems.

Sullivan also updated Avionics on the NextGen-related Data Comm Avionics Equipage Initiative, a program designed to influence airlines to equip a minimum of 1,900 aircraft with the datacom software and hardware during the first six years of the contract for Future Air Navigation Systems (FANS). Ninety percent of the funding may be used to equip Part 121 aircraft with the rest going to Part 135 aircraft.

“We’ve had ongoing discussions with a number of airlines since the program was awarded,” said O’Sullivan. “In the next three months or so, you will start to see announcements about airlines signing up.”

Harris offers an incentive package to airlines that outfit flight decks with FANS equipment. In turn, the airlines provide a schedule of what aircraft will be equipped. When the aircraft is equipped, the airline can obtain a cash rebate. Equipment in the cockpit would include an Air Traffic Services Unit (ATS) a VHF data radio (VDR3) and two data link control and display units (DCDU).

Melbourne, Fla.-based Harris is also responsible for the National Airspace System Voice System (NVS), which replaces old voice switches with flexible operational voice capability. NVS supports ground-to-ground voice communications between air traffic controllers, as well as air-to-ground voice communications between controllers and aircraft.

The program is still in the “qualification phase,” said O’Sullivan. The next major milestone is to install demonstration systems in the FAA environment. These systems will be deployed to Oklahoma and WJHTC FAA sites this summer with demonstrations of NVS NextGen features to begin this fall.

In August 2012, FAA chose Harris to put NVS in air traffic control towers, terminal and en route facilities, and future NextGen air traffic control facilities. Harris is replacing 17 different voice switches with an Internet-based voice communications network.

At its full capability, the updated Voice Switching and Control Service (VSCS), now called the National Air Space System Voice System (NVS), will allow “any FAA networked asset to talk to another asset,” said O’Sullivan. The updated VSCS allows more “dynamic resectorization and disaster recovery and the incorporating of unmanned aerial systems into the ATC system,” he added.

Harris has a portfolio of NextGen-related projects. Among those programs with which Harris is associated is the System Wide Information Management (SWIM). In August 2012 the FAA awarded Harris the SWIM Segment 2 program through the NAS Enterprise Messaging Service (NEMS). Harris, in partnership with FAA, deployed Net-Centric core services with NAS for several projects including the sharing of airport surface information, known as ASDE-X, with airlines and government agencies and other stakeholders.

SWIM will streamline and integrate various data-sharing programs, including those providing surveillance, weather and flight data, into an easier-to-use network, in which the NAS can be placed. SWIM is also expected to reduce costs and increase agility for various FAA communications programs.

Harris also manages for FAA the terrestrial Federal Telecommunications Infrastructure (FTI), both the legacy and NextGen related systems. The Harris FTI provides voice, data and video communications for NAS operations. FTI securely connects more than 4,500 national and international FAA and DoD facilities, manages more than 22,000 services, and supports more than 50,000 users, according to Harris promotional materials.

Harris is also involved with updating the legacy weather system, known as WARP. The NextGen weather system will merge legacy systems into one program. While FAA has made strides toward by publishing weather data through the NAS via SWIM, it is moving slowly in consolidating the weather systems.

“Weather is the hardest to rationalize because FAA is not in the weather forecasting and display business, but they need to be because weather is the number one reason for air traffic delays,” said O’Sullivan.

ERAM

ERAM will process flight radar data, provide communications support and generate display data for air traffic controllers at all 20 U.S.-based FAA Air Route Traffic Control Centers (ARTCC), which control aircraft flying at altitudes above 10,000 feet.

Lockheed Martin declined several interview requests on ERAM, directing queries to FAA on the multi-billion dollar NextGen initiative to modernize the enroute air system. The agency declined to provide a NextGen expert for interview, but did provide an update on the overall program.

As of late June 2013, 16 of the 20 sites had “initial operational capability,” according to an FAA spokesman. Of the 16 sites, 11 have reached “continuous operations” status. They include: Seattle, Salt Lake City, Denver, Minneapolis, Albuquerque, N.M., Oakland, Calif., Los Angeles, Houston, Kansas City, Mo., Chicago and Indianapolis.

Reported software problems with ERAM have “been fixed,” according to an FAA spokesman. ERAM, a $2.1 billion project, was launched in 2003 to replace the old Host upper airspace traffic computer network.

The top map, from FAA, shows the Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC)
locations and status for ERAM. The bottom map, from Lockheed Martin map,
also includes ADS-B initial operational capability (IOC).
 
“Despite recent progress with ERAM, considerable work remains to complete the effort in 2014 as planned,” DoT Inspector General Scovel testified in July. He added as the program is deployed to the nation’s busiest airports, namely those in New York and Washington, is expected to identify new programs that could impact cost and schedule.

According to Scovel, FAA is currently spending about $12 million a month on the ERAM contract. “If the current contract burn rate does not decline significantly, the agency will need additional funds to complete this stage of the program,” he added.

NextGen stakeholders said ERAM is back on track and there is noticeable cooperation between FAA, the vendor and the air traffic controllers. “We went from software buildup at key sites without any input from controllers to working very closely with engineers and the vendor in updating the software,” said Trish Gilbert, executive vice president, National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA).NATCA is urging FAA to buildup the ERAM software on “national, not facility by facility” basis to avoid disruption in the program.

One remaining concern of the controllers is the potential lack of funding for NextGen transition training for new and existing air traffic controllers because of sequestration-related FAA budget cuts. At present, there is no developed curriculum for NextGen training for new hire controllers, added Gilbert.

Initial deployments of the highly complex ERAM, specifically the Salt Lake City ARTCC, revealed problems with its software system, delaying full deployment of the system from 2010 to 2014 or longer.

The initial problems came to light in Congressional testimony in November 2011 by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Government Accountability Office and, separately, by the DoT Inspector General. GAO estimated that ERAM would not be operational before 2014 and that the program would be $330 million over budget, Avionics reported at the time. The IG projected that full deployment could come as late as 2016 and be $500 million over budget.

While funding remains a major concern, ERAM software problems and the friction between stakeholders is over. “It is a completely different place,” summed Gilbert.

TAMR, STARS

The Terminal Automation Modernization/Replacement (TAMR) program aims to modernize or replace all of the automation systems that controllers rely on to manage traffic at terminal facilities with a single automation platform the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS). STARS integrates radar data and flight plan information and presents it to air traffic controllers on high resolution, 20 by 20 color displays.

According to prime contractor Raytheon, STARS is capable of tracking up to 1,350 airborne aircraft simultaneously within a terminal area. The system interfaces with multiple radars (up to 16 short and long range), 128 controller positions, 20 remote towers, and a 400-by-400 mile area of coverage.

TAMR currently involves modernizing automation systems at 11 terminal facilities, 7 of which are the largest and busiest in the United States. FAA estimated this effort will cost $438 million and be completed by between 2015 and 2017. In June, Raytheon said STARS systems went into continuous operation at Dallas-Fort Worth, the first of the 11 TRACONS to be upgraded.

“This modernization ensures that the complex airspace in Dallas-Fort Worth is ready for the improved safety, capacity, efficiency and environmental benefits required to accommodate the forecast increase in global air traffic,” said Joseph Paone, director of Raytheon’s Air Traffic Systems.

Earlier this year, DOT IG’s office said FAA faces significant cost, schedule and technical risks to modernize these facilities. Specifically, FAA has yet to identify and finalize all software and hardware requirements that are needed to fully replace the existing automation system.

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