[Avionics Today 10-09-2014] National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) aviation investigators have significantly increased their ability to discover the causes of aircraft accidents and incidents. The agency is now using a tool that gives them web-based access to real time aircraft surveillance of every commercial flight throughout the National Airspace System (NAS) with the Symphony OpsVue data and applications suite from Exelis.
A user takes a look at air traffic surveillance of the National Airspace System (NAS) with the Exelis Symphony OpsVue data and applications suite. Photo: Exelis.
NTSB is an "unusual" user of this surveillance solution, Scott Dunham, the agency's national resource specialist for Air Traffic Control (ATC), told Avionics Magazine. OpsVue was first introduced commercially by Exelis in 2011, is now deployed at 11 airports, and is used by Spirit Airlines and Embry Riddle Flight School as a NAS surveillance tool as well. But aircraft accident investigators will look to use the tool for a much different purpose.
"Rapid access to radar information helps us to understand what may have occurred sooner than we otherwise would, and can provide field investigators with valuable initial guidance on possible factors involved in the accident," said Dunham. "We also use the data to do initial evaluation of weather conditions in the area when an accident occurred."
Earlier this year, NTSB investigators began using OpsVue on a trial basis and found that the biggest benefit of this next generation surveillance solution was the quick access to radar data, "sometimes within a few minutes of being notified of a crash," Dunham said. Prior to using the Exelis surveillance tool, the agency would usually have to wait several days to gain access to FAA radar information.
How is OpsVue able to provide such quick access to aircraft flight data for pre-investigation analysis by the NTSB? There's a combination of reasons according to Ted Carniol, general manager of commercial aviation solutions at Exelis. But primarily, it has to do with the ability of the web-based program to fuse multiple aircraft surveillance radars and sources of throughout the NAS and provide NTSB agents with detailed data about aircraft flight paths before they venture out to the accident scene. Investigators can access this information from anywhere as long as they have an Internet connection.
"Before [NTSB] had our system, they would go out to the site with limited data on the flight path or location of the aircraft. To get the radar data from the FAA takes some time," Carniol told Avionics Magazine. "With Symphony OpsVue and the Exelis NextGen data feed, NTSB can immediately use the system’s DVR capability to immediately replay the past 15 minutes of data to see what happened. There is also a historical replay feature that allows the user to go back and look at what happened in specific time windows up to 2 years in the past, allowing NTSB to see what happened to the aircraft in question. How fast was it going? What’s the altitude, heading, and other factors? Instant access to the data provides NTSB reliable information on what occurred, and can pinpoint the location of the aircraft. "
Exelis is also the provider of the nationwide Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) ground network for the FAA's Next Generation Air Traffic Management (ATM) system. The ability to integrate the FAA's existing sources of terminal radar, en route radar and all airport surface tracking systems nationwide can ensure that NTSB is using the most accurate data possible during their pre-investigation process.
The surveillance sources also include the Airport Surface Surveillance Capability (ASSC), a surveillance tool provided to the FAA by Saab Sensis. ASSC processes ADS-B data along with other sensor sources to provide a singular fused view of airport runways and taxiways. Also included among those sources is the Airport Surface Detection System – Model X (ASDE-X), which uses radar, multilateration and satellite technology, which allows Air Traffic Controllers to track airport surface movement of aircraft and vehicles.
According to Carniol, the fusion of all that data produces "a complete track from gate-to-gate for every aircraft in the NAS. This data is updated more frequently than any other available data source.”
There are other uses for OpsVue outside of aircraft accident investigations for NTSB as well, Dunham said. The "DVR" capability of OpsVue allows board members to review older cases using historical data, and they're also able to use video captures of flight tracks to brief managers on accidents.
NTSB's ATC investigators are also using Symphony OpsVue to review air traffic incidents reported to the board when an aircraft is being operated on an Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) flight plan and an incident occurs where there is a substantial risk of collision between two or more aircraft.
"The ease of reviewing surveillance information using OpsVue has greatly reduced the amount of time needed to look at such events and substantially improved our efficiency," said Dunham. "The product is still evolving, and we look forward to further development of OpsVue and will continue to work with Exelis on new features and functions."