Editor's Note

SWIM Heads for Final Lap

By by Charlotte Adams | December 1, 2014
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The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) System-Wide Information Management (SWIM) program, now more than halfway to the finish line, is the agency’s version of net-centricity. Using the Federal Telecommunications Infrastructure (FTI) backbone, SWIM provides the means for National Air Space (NAS) systems to share information, increase interoperability and encourage the reuse of information and services, the agency says. Under SWIM, data that may originally have been used for safety-critical purposes becomes a tool for flight management. According to program officials, SWIM will enable users to respond faster and more accurately because they can access the data they need when they need it.

At the heart of the original NextGen program, SWIM is an effort to get wide swaths of FAA data not only to FAA personnel, but also to the larger aviation public, including airlines and pilots. So far, SWIM development and implementation have cost about $426 million out of the approximately $5 billion the FAA has spent so far on the 20-year, $20-billion NextGen umbrella initiative.

Mel Davis, who follows NextGen programs for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), compares SWIM to the Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) on a modern flight deck. In this analogy, SWIM is not the cockpit’s center avionics stack, which corresponds to the absolutely mission-critical Air Traffic Controller (ATC) systems, but rather, like the EFB, SWIM provides information that will enhance situational awareness and thereby reinforce safety. Still, SWIM data is not used to keep aircraft from falling out of the sky. Its value is strategic, not tactical. Information may be collected from ATC sensors, such as surface radars, but it is being reused to manage traffic, not to control it. “The whole point of SWIM is to give every aviation user access to as much information as possible,” Davis explains, with different users subscribing to different subsets of data.

SWIM is a work in progress. At the moment the network provides access to data such as surface movement radar, local and big-picture weather, Notices to Airmen (NOTAM) and pilot reports. In fiscal year 2015, the agency expects to add traffic flow and aircraft metering information. The FAA says the program is about 60 percent finished and expects completion in 2016 depending on demand. Among current subscribers are six major passenger and cargo carriers, the Atlanta and San Francisco airport authorities, four research institutions and companies engaged in providing or developing SWIM data packages for specific users. SWIM is already making its presence felt, both on the FAA and the airline side.

Shared View

One recent example of SWIM benefits is the use of surface radar feeds collected and “published” by SWIM to help Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) controllers coordinate more efficiently with their airport tower counterparts in subpar conditions, Davis says. Data from, the Airport Surface Detection Equipment - Model X (ASDE-X) radar and surveillance system, is traditionally available only to airport tower controllers.

Thanks to SWIM, however, controllers at the Southern California TRACON are able to see the same surface situations that tower controllers face at Los Angeles’ busy LAX airport. This has helped the two sides manage traffic flows efficiently despite heavy construction activity at the airport. The TRACON was able to obtain shared surface movement situational awareness with the tower via the new SWIM Terminal Data Distribution System (STDDS) network, using the SWIM Visualization Tool (SVT) on a smaller, secondary screen adjacent to their large primary radar displays.

FAA is installing STDDS equipment at 38 TRACONs, according to a government information technology website. SWIM has been directed to deploy the SVT at nine TRACONs, the agency says. The FAA’s current blueprint, which calls for TRACONs and Air Route Traffic Control Centers (ARTCCs) to see surface movement data via the Terminal Flight Data Manager (TFDM), will deploy in coming years, the agency says. But the controllers at the Southern California TRACON — with the collaboration of the air traffic organization — are able to tap into the data now.

Runway Visual Range (RVR) data is also starting to be published to the SWIM cloud. Now, subscribed, authenticated users at airline operations centers can see what the RVRs are at destination airports.

The Southern California TRACON’s SWIM hookup also helped its controllers work with their counterparts at the San Diego airport. In bad weather San Diego shifts to opposite-direction operations, which cut airport capacity roughly in half. In the past, the increased traffic density around the airport resulting from this shift would lead to a flurry of calls between controllers at the two facilities, Davis says, but with the shared situational awareness provided by STDDS and SVT, the number of planning calls can be reduced.

Widening Circle

Non-airline companies are also receiving and repackaging FAA data to meet customers’ particular requirements. Saab is already taking airport surface movement data feeds — including surface radar, multilateration and gate surveillance sensor information as well as additional FAA and non-FAA data — and fusing it together for its Departure Management System (DMS) at JFK International Airport and elsewhere. The company is transitioning from the agency’s earlier NAS Enterprise Security Gateway (NAS ESG), which provides this feed, to SWIM, which provides a broader set of information.

ASDE-X is a safety-critical radar system, intended to warn tower controllers of potential runway incursions and so reduce the risk of accidents. But Saab, under contract with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, has developed a system that uses this feed to help orchestrate gate pushback times to coordinate access to the movement area and indirectly assist the controllers make the most efficient use of runway resources. The end result is increased efficiency, safety and reduced emissions from aircraft. At JFK, Saab has contracted with Robinson Aviation to staff a metering control center that will broker revised pushback times with airlines and terminal operators, thereby providing flexibility to account for operational irregularities.

Before DMS the airlines would call the tower for pushback times once they were ready to push back, explains Dan London, Saab’s director of collaborative decision making and efficiency. “Frequently you would see long departure queues.” The company’s software, however, helps to set queue depth, so the controllers never face a “runway starvation” situation, but there are not too many airplanes in line, he says.

The benefits are tangible. According to a study of operations at JFK, the departure management system helped reduce taxi-out times, saving airlines about $13 million a year in fuel costs, and cutting CO2 emissions by about 43,000 metric tons over the same period. At San Francisco International Airport, meanwhile, the company’s departure management system assisted in the management of recent runway closures. Over a four-month period, the Saab system helped to reduce operating costs by $8.3 million and emissions by 7,180 metric tons, according to the company.

The departure management system leverages the company’s Aerobahn software platform. Saab repackages FAA data for customers such as American, United and Delta, and has more than 100 airline users, London says.

Pilots, Too

Rockwell Collins, meanwhile, is using a SWIM subscription for an FAA-sponsored program known as Aircraft Access to SWIM (AATS). As part of AATS, the company is developing the means for business and commercial aircraft to access the data during flight to reduce operational costs and increase efficiencies.

AATS aims to create a “common situational awareness information environment” between ATC, the flight deck and, in the case of commercial operations, the Flight Operations Center (FOC)/Airline Operations Center (AOC), according to the company. Rockwell Collins anticipates that SWIM’s in-flight capabilities will eventually allow a two-way communications model, where pilots can provide real-time information to the system, while coordinating with their airline or flight operations centers.

Within this program, Rockwell Collins has developed an implementation of Data Management Services (DMS), a utility that consumes information from SWIM-enabled NAS services and the FAA’s FTI. The company’s DMS system is wirelessly connected to the aircraft through a ground-to-air data link.

SWIM and AATS, through DMS, represent a new paradigm, which enhances strategic planning and flight efficiency, increases airspace capacity, reduces frequency congestion, fuel consumption, pilot/controller workload and improves collaboration and decision making, ensuring safer and timelier departures and arrivals, Rockwell Collins officials say.

Other companies are involved in AATS, too. Several demos have taken place, in which Honeywell and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University have implemented the DMS, respectively.

Rockwell Collins intends to leverage its ARINC acquisition — now the company’s Information Management Systems (IMS) division — to offer SWIM products and services. IMS already provides WebASD, a Web-based tool for ground personnel that displays information such as position based on FAA and other ATC system radar position reports.

Other SWIM data products currently supported through the Rockwell Collins DMS are: Meteorological Aerodrome Report (METAR), Terminal Area Forecast (TAF), Airman’s Meteorological Information (AIRMET), Significant Meteorological Information (SIGMET), Pilot Reports (PIREPS), Next-Generation Weather Radar (NEXRAD), NOTAM, terminal winds, and icing severity and potential, according to the company. Rockwell Collins is providing these products via EFB subscription services under AATS.

Charlotte Adamshas written about aerospace and defense systems, operations and maintenance issues for 30 years. She is a contributor to Avionics, Aviation Maintenance and other industry publications and can be reached at cburtonadams@yahoo.com.

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