Business & GA, Commercial

Charles Keegan: Point Man for U.S. Airspace Modernization

By Charlotte Adams | June 1, 2003
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Modernizing the U.S. airspace system can be challenging in the best of times. But now, funding is more constrained although air traffic growth is inevitable, making the challenge greater. In the center of that challenge in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is Charles Keegan, associate administrator for research and acquisitions. He also directs the agency’s Operational Evolution Plan (OEP), a rolling, 10-year blueprint to increase airspace capacity by 31 percent. In an interview with Avionics Magazine, Keegan brought us up to date on the agency’s near-term and long-term technology agenda, including programs such as automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) and the local area augmentation system (LAAS). In his office at FAA headquarters, Keegan acknowledged the difficulties he faces, but still exuded enthusiasm for the new technologies available, as well as optimism that many, if not all of them, will evolve to become widely used.

Avionics Magazine: Interest is growing in ADS-B. How important is this technology?

Keegan: It’s the one application that does a lot of things well. ADS-B and ADS-B-like activities represent 6 percent of the total [almost one-fifth of the OEP’s 31 percent capacity increase goal]. It represents for us the technology that says, "You can maintain 3 miles on final."

We can probably do that with other technologies such as PRM [precision runway monitoring] and RNP [required navigation performance], so ADS-B will be supplemented with other activities. We want to expand it, to establish the infrastructure in the Lower 48. We’re doing that around Louisville, Ky., with UPS, and in Arizona with Embry-Riddle. For student pilots ADS-B provides increased awareness of other aircraft. UPS has more than 120 kits on order and expects to have several [aircraft] updated by spring.

One of the largest areas of delay is when we make the transition from VFR conditions and visual approaches [to IFR], when it gets difficult for aircraft to see and follow one another. If pilots have [ADS-B] information, then they will be better able to pick out other aircraft in marginal conditions and maintain the capacity that’s available while conditions are deteriorating until they really do need to go to IFR conditions.

There are tremendous ground applications for ADS-B, as well. You can see where you are in a big airport. Because the ground information can be sent to the aircraft control tower or ramp tower, decisions about traffic flows can be made more efficiently. And there are security applications of ADS-B.

Avionics Magazine: What are the larger implications?

Keegan: We’re doing the work to be able to take the ADS-B information and fuse it into an [approach control] system. We need to work the procedural end of how we’re going to gather the data and use ADS-B. We’re going to do some demonstrations. If RNP is the overarching premise, then ADS-B becomes one of the applications that leads us into that. If all aircraft are equipped [with ADS-B], for example, ground-based radars are not required. Certainly there’s a transition, but ADS-B represents how you can transition the infrastructure from ground to air or supplement the ground infrastructure with the airborne infrastructure. It begins to play shared responsibility for separation, capacity, efficiency–fundamental changes in the way the system operates–from a ground-based, static environment to an airborne platform where there’s lots of flexibility, lots of information.

But more information in the cockpit doesn’t mean that the information has to stay in the cockpit. It can be re-piped down to the air traffic controllers for their use. The update rates are much faster than [the radar update rates] we currently have. Our separation standards are based on those kinds of update rates, so potentially aircraft can get closer safer.

Avionics Magazine: Capstone is a good news story, isn’t it?

Keegan: Capstone represents a microcosm of the future National Airspace System. At Bethel [Alaska], we use air-to-air information in lieu of a radar site. It’s piped back to the Anchorage center. Alaskan pilots in Capstone will probably be among the first to actually have WAAS [wide area augmentation system] routes. When WAAS goes operational, they will have WAAS-only routes.

Capstone represents all the things that we want to have in the future NAS already under way. It has demonstrated itself to be much safer–certainly at Bethel. That’s really the best thing–to see that the future NAS works and can be integrated, and that people use it.

We will have hundreds of WAAS approaches when we turn WAAS on because we’re doing a very unique thing. We don’t need to flight-check all the approaches. Ohio State University and the Mitre Corp. have developed a computer model to help us with WAAS approaches, and that will determine whether we can actually do the approach criteria, as well as determine whether it requires flight testing or not. So it’s government efficiency.

Avionics Magazine: The latest version of the OEP places more emphasis on RNP? Is that because it’s a less expensive way to increase capacity?

Keegan: We’ve added [more] focus on RNP, which is still in its infancy within the document. It represents a transition, to be able to utilize what capabilities are in the aircraft to achieve increased capacity. But I would not characterize it as looking for a cheap solution; we’re looking for what grows capacity, and RNP is a strategy that is important.

RNP is performance-based. It provides services via the capabilities that are available both in the air and on the ground. It’s descriptive: if you perform this way and you have tight tolerances, then we can provide these levels of services. The community has a clear understanding of what’s possible. RNP relies on a well-equipped aircraft. It also requires government investment...to have those tight tolerances, such as the proper DMEs in place, or satellite navigation, or whatever construct it takes–and certainly the procedures in place.

Avionics Magazine: Are you collaborating with other agencies?

Keegan: We are working with NASA and ...with DoD [Department of Defense] and TSA [Transportation Security Administration] to leverage our intellectual capital, as well as financial and human resources, to see what we can do for each other to make elements within the OEP, or even new elements, go faster. This effort is a few months old.

The administrator [Marion Blakey] has come out in many of her speeches about what her expectations are. She’s coined the phrase, "OEP on steroids." We’re trying to do more faster. Our purpose is to ensure we have an appropriate target for the long term, as well as what we can do faster.

We also use a number of forums, in particular RTCA’s collaborative environment, so that we’re all in sync to move forward. You don’t want to move forward when other people can’t.

Avionics Magazine: Are there collaborations with the Department of Defense?

Keegan: We’re trying to leverage future elements and do them jointly. The DoD can bring newer technology to the forefront faster. But the civil side can help drive down the cost of some technologies if we collaborate. Multimode radio is a good example of mutual work between DoD and the civilian side. We need multimode radios in the world today. We have our standard analog systems and Europe has gone to the 8.33 [KHz] radio. But we’re exploring VDL Mode 3 radio, which would be smaller, portable. [The multimode radio] can handle everything in today’s environment–VDL 3, as well as an 8.33-KHz environment, and, we’re hoping, whatever the next-generation is.

Avionics Magazine: Would you leverage software radio programs such as the Joint Tactical Radio System?

Keegan: Absolutely. We’d have to lower the cost for DoD, and that, in turn, will lower the cost for us.

Avionics Magazine: What other technologies are you watching in DoD?

Keegan: We’re certainly interested in how operations affect their unmanned air vehicle [UAV] work and its implications on what we need to do. Certainly the introduction of UAVs and the space they would take up represent potentially a capacity hit–a situation that could require a new infrastructure. But we’re on the leading edge of that kind of collaboration, understanding its implications and trying to stay ahead of the power curve.

Avionics Magazine: Are you increasing air traffic capacity?

Keegan: We’re just a hair ahead. At the end of 2002 we think we were at least 3 percent ahead of the curve–this is mostly runways. There are things we didn’t get anything out of and that we expect to do better on in 2003. One is PRM. Technically, it works. Procedurally, it’s an introduction of a new technology that requires synchronized effort between air traffic controllers and pilots to make sure that everything is set. We’ve worked a number of issues and think this summer we’ll have PRM back in operation at Minneapolis. And then the sites that need it–that are already listed in the OEP–can get back on a waterfall [or plan].

We did get some capacity early on with new routes in the Gulf of Mexico. We want to provide communications coverage of the Gulf of Mexico for long routes and we have a plan to do that. The buoys program [to put communications buoys in the Gulf] technically didn’t work, so we terminated that contract. Now we’re conducting research with Boeing to explore the ability for communications, potentially using satellites.

We also modified 15 choke point sectors–primarily between Chicago and Washington, D.C. We changed the airspace design, and the network effect of that is phenomenal. It was supposed to relieve the choking, but it did a lot more than that. If we stay on that [present] curve, we’d increase capacity by 8 percent by the end of 2003 [compared with 2000].

Avionics Magazine: What’s the outlook for the local area augmentation system (LAAS) program?

Keegan: We’ve been very strong advocates for satellite-based technology, including LAAS. But LAAS represents high risk from a technical standpoint, to be able to accomplish the objective of obtaining Cat II and III approaches. We think it’s relatively straightforward to get to Cat I. But it also becomes an equipage issue and a value issue of [what] we’ll get above and beyond what we’ll get with WAAS [wide area augmentation system], ILS and RNP capabilities. We are undertaking a study to determine the benefits that LAAS, on its own, provides.

There are certainly potentially good business cases for LAAS. FedEx has, I think, a very solid business case, but it may be one of the few. There’s a difference between having a nationalized LAAS program and having a locally developed program for a single airport or two. The agency needs to understand 1) the business case and 2) the technical piece on how we’ll get there–and have some assurance about whether we’ll be able to develop LAAS into a Cat III approach–before sinking a tremendous amount of money into the program. So we’ve broken up the program to be able to have decision points where we get a clear understanding of the requirements and documentation to make sure it’s a certifiable system. We’ll develop it, test it, and if it all tests out, proceed on.

The LAAS program’s [first phase] is for a complete design for a Cat I system. It would be a paper design for how to meet the requirements for Cat I, which will include integrity. Integrity is the hard part. It separates what we would consider to be a real production system from the prototypes. The Cat I system is on the path towards Cat II/Cat III. We’re looking for every opportunity to accelerate, jump start the Cat III piece–if there’s a business case. The engineers have high confidence [in Cat III], but there are some tradeoffs. We have to make sure those tradeoffs still yield us a viable solution. It’s basically how much capability you put in the aircraft vs. how much on the ground. Is there a better place to put it? And are the tradeoffs possible?

Avionics Magazine: Is collaborative decision making becoming more important?

Keegan: We have increased the definition for, and we are working towards collaborative decision making. We have always had tremendous benefits from the collaboration with the airlines and other users. When we do that, the system operates with a great deal more predictability. What we see are gaps in the system...and where we have an opening [for example, an airport landing slot at Los Angeles], we can figure out who is best able to utilize that opening so we don’t have any waste in the system. It all operates when the system is under some type of perturbation–severe weather conditions or severe constraints around the airport for whatever reason–snow removal, etc. So when we have openings, we want to make sure that every possible slot is used.

We also need to plan, to get that information somehow, have it automated and then redistributed. So collaborative decision making is really not only a philosophy, but a set of tools. And those automation tools are resident not only in our air traffic command center in Herndon [Va.], but also in the airline operations center.

Avionics Magazine: What is the situation with the privatization of the Flight Service Stations?

Keegan: We’re not discussing the privatization of the Flight Service Stations. We are doing a competitive sourcing study to determine the most cost-effective way to deliver those services to the public. It represents an analysis of the capabilities of private industry, as well as the capabilities FAA could deliver. Then we’ll make a decision post this study.

We’re setting up the pieces about how we go about evaluating the service. It will be the largest study of its kind in government. I don’t have a time line. These things take a long time...a couple years.

Avionics Magazine: Are you having difficulty with the Advanced Technologies and Oceanic Procedures (ATOP) program?

Keegan: We’ve had some difficulties in development. Fortunately this has been no cost to the government, but it has taken more time than originally anticipated. But we’re well within all of our public committed dates. We would like to modernize as quickly as possible. We’re in good shape operationally. Over the next two years, for example in the South Pacific, you’ll see a reduction in the current 100 miles between aircraft to 30 miles between aircraft. So that’s a lot of capacity gained.

Avionics Magazine: What kind of ideas are you getting from industry on the strategic plan?

Keegan: We have a total of 54 solid ideas. The ideas are not just single-threaded–do this really neat gadget–but rather do this better business practice with this kind of technology, representing these kinds of changes in the operation.

We’re very pleased with what we’ve gotten from internal teams and the external drop box. We will vet these in internal forums on handling OEP and in public forums through RTCA about what we think is viable and what the impact would be. We’ll get some feedback and mold them in short order and then feed [the ideas] into our very specific strategic plan. We’ll set goals for safety and capacity, and maybe for business practices.

Avionics Magazine: Are you getting the budget you need to get the work done?

Keegan: There is incredible downward pressure. Our industry is in very difficult economic times. But our priorities are being maintained. The system is being maintained safely and we’re still making incredible progress in modernization. We’re all lined up to have a very bright future, [but] it’s going to come a little bit slower than advocates would like, and I’m one of them. We need to keep the pressure on now to continue to be effective. OEP has tremendous traction to be able to measure us, keep us on track, keep the energy up. Chicago, for example, has been busier than ever. So we’re putting the pressure on. We don’t want to ever let up, to give anybody the idea that it’s OK to wait, because it’s not. The traffic is moving. It’s moving in different places and we want to stay in front of that power curve.

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