ATM Modernization, Commercial, Embedded Avionics

Q&A: Todd Donovan, President, Thales ATM

By Tish Drake | July 14, 2011
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Todd Donovan, Thales ATM

Todd Donovan, president, Thales ATM, sat down with Avionics Magazine at the Paris Air Show last month to discuss NextGen implementation, its integration with Europe's SESAR program and what the future of ATM looks like.

Question: How would you categorize the current state of NextGen implementation?
Answer: I think the FAA has made some very good progress on ADS-B and they’re progressing very quickly on Datacomm as well. We’re expecting that as the pieces start to fit together and enable operational improvements we will see some tangible progress toward the results airspace users want.

Q: How does that compare to Europe?
A: SESAR … is following a very methodical top-down approach starting with societal goals, and flowing those down into operational needs and flowing those down into projects to support the initiative. And they’ve worked from a design phase to a development phase to a deployment phase, ultimately. So they have some very defined things that they’re working on, which is yielding some real field experience with the new concepts and technology. That’s one area where NextGen could improve. The community would benefit from some field experience with the concepts we’re talking about and not just writing papers and doing studies and simulations.

Q: What are some of the roadblocks to NextGen implementation? And what is industry doing to overcome those roadblocks?
A: The typical answer is that funding is the biggest roadblock —both from the perspective of funding for airspace-users to upgrade their aircraft as well as funding for FAA programs. Broadly we know the U.S. government has significant budgetary challenges and that will put a lot of pressure on the FAA. As an industry, it’s our responsibility to help find some innovative ways to help both the FAA and the user community to do more with less.

Q: You mentioned progress with ADS-B and Datacomm. Are those the two NextGen programs that you see that should be given the greatest priority?
A: ADS-B and Datacomm are both important. ADS-B improves the quality of surveillance data that’s available for monitoring flight activities; Datacomm enables more robust interaction. When we talk about the future, we talk about very dynamic flight routes and the ability for aircraft to fly through specific points in space at particular times. These aren’t instructions that a controller can easily communicate like a latitude and longitude at a particular time. You need digital datalink to enable more complex procedures. In the end that’s where we’re going to be able to get more capacity and really wring a little bit more efficiency out of the airspace that we have available to us.

Q: With all the automation that NextGen provides, how will the role of the controller and the pilot change?
A: I think we’re always going to have pilots and we’re always going to have controllers. And I think there have been a lot of discussions in the past where people have had a fear that automation means an elimination of people as part of the system. I think it’s always going to be a human-centric system. The role of automation is really to try to automate tasks that are mundane and that are easily accomplished by computers and to leave the humans to the more complex decision making and judgment that may be required in complex situations.

Q: What are some growth areas for Thales ATM?
A: Broadly, Thales is the only company that is a market leader in avionics, air traffic management, satellites, and flight simulators. So we believe we have a very unique view on the aviation market and we have a very unique ability to bring together assets from our business to take on some of aviation’s problems. In the ATM space, we are focused on helping the FAA maintain and enhance their physical infrastructure, their surveillance and navigation systems, but we’re also interested in leveraging some of the advancements we’ve made in automation around the world and helping the FAA apply them to some of their challenges.

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