What key enabling technologies are critical to facilitating growth in the National Airspace System (NAS)? I believe the needed communications, navigation and surveillance (CNS) technologies have been identified. These are Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), an air/ground air traffic services data communications capability and a network-enabled NAS, including the aircraft.
I would like to make three observations that relate to the difficulty of implementing these technologies and exploiting the capabilities they offer. First, the vastness of our enterprise is a key driver of the need for one of these technologies — an air/ground data link. Second, in my opinion, not enough attention is being paid to implementing those applications that will exploit key CNS capabilities. Finally, some thought needs to be given to the standards process.
The airspace enterprise is vast. It consists of approximately 240,000 aircraft utilizing 800 manned, 4,100 unmanned and 320 military facilities and 113 system types. FAA terrestrial telecommunications are provided over 21,000 circuits, 19,600 of which employ legacy interfaces.
A consequence of that scale is the difficulty in deploying new capabilities. In the commercial information technology world, scale has been overcome through modern computer and display platforms, associated standardized systems software and widely adopted interface standards and communications protocols. This allows distributed capability to be easily implemented and upgraded through applications software.
Significant portions of NAS infrastructure are reaching a similar state. Modernization of terrestrial ATC processing systems combined with the operational Internet Protocol network of the FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure provide the needed terrestrial infrastructure. Airborne computer systems, displays and data buses are being developed to allow deployment of airborne capability through software. The major missing element is a robust air/ground data link supporting modern and widely used mobility protocols. Provision of this element in combination with continued evolution to modern airborne avionics suites will lead to a state in which scale is no longer a major impediment to change.
Infrastructure is useless without applications and enabling procedures. There are significant activities ongoing in the aviation community that will deliver benefit. UPS is actively working with Aviation Communication & Surveillance Systems and in cooperation with the FAA and others to develop sophisticated ADS-B air-to-air applications that promise very significant operational benefit. Delta Airlines has deployed a planning application in support of flow planning at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson airport. It provides fix times to airborne aircraft while en route, based on an optimized plan. The application projects, optimizes, plans, and then, notably, makes the pilot a participant in the process through the provision of a goal. It is non-ATC impacting; instead, the system represents a planning overlay on the real-time ATC system. These initiatives and others are very promising, but such initiatives need to be brought into the NAS on a larger scale.
The Joint Planning and Development Office has conceptualized a NAS that has significant distribution of separation responsibilities and the concept of control by exception. The distance between the current NAS and the envisioned NAS is enormous and will, by necessity, be traveled incrementally. More needs to be done to clearly define and implement the incremental steps. Generalization of the operational paradigm of the planning application described above, would, for example, begin a path to a trajectory-based NAS without the requirement for major real-time ATC system operational change.
A final observation is that our current standardization process is very slow. It consists principally of companies and individuals devoting time on a pro bono basis and requires a long time [to complete]. Some rethinking of this process may be in order.
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John Kefaliotis is director of business development for FAA and Air Traffic Control Programs with ITT Corp. in McLean, Va. This article is adapted from a presentation at the Air Traffic Control Association conference in Washington in October, with permission of the author.