ATM Modernization

The Connectivity Play in Future US NextGen Strategy

By Juliet Van Wagenen | June 1, 2015
Send Feedback


As NextGen moves forward to modernize the current Air Traffic Control (ATC) system in the United States, connectivity is at its core, according to Mel Davis, the national NextGen representative at the National Air Traffic Controller’s Association. “Connectivity allows us to take all of the information and make it available at all times to decision-makers who desire access to said information. That really is the fundamental essence of NextGen,” he says.

Indeed, through the infrastructure the FAA has put in place to support enhanced communication, companies such as Exelis, ICG Aero and SITA are already making use of connectivity to improve overall operational efficiency and bolster communications both on the airport’s surface and in flight. But as Internet connectivity in the cockpit moves from its infancy into maturity, companies, controllers, pilots, and everyone in the aviation ecosystem is already looking to how connectivity can revolutionize communications past the near-term and offer fast, reliable, secure enhancements to decision-makers in the NAS far into the future.

Data Comm

When it comes to in-flight communications, connectivity is already leaving its mark in the cockpit as communications transition from voice radio VHF communications to Data Communications (Data Comm). One of the companies making this possible is SITA which, alongside Harris, struck a contract in 2012 with the FAA to enable Controller Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC) within the Future Air Navigation System (FANS) version 1/A. ATC communications have relied on relatively slow and inefficient voice radio for the last 40 years, but with air traffic steadily increasing, the FAA is turning to Data Comm, such as CPDLC, to help ATCs and pilots alike communicate more efficiently through a text-message-like system built into the Flight Management System (FMS) in the cockpit. These connectivity-enabled systems will rely on SITA’s network, which previously provided communication to strictly ATC and is designed to deliver safety-critical applications securely and reliably to the aircraft.

“The basic advantage of data link is that it can take over very routine communications such as instructions to change voice radio frequencies between sectors, which allows controllers and pilots to concentrate on managing airspace and flying the aircraft,” says Philip Clinch, vice president of aircraft services at SITA. “The other benefit of data link is that, compared to voice radio, it reduces by an order of magnitude the risk of misunderstanding. Even between controllers and pilots with the same native language, studies show that pilots, like all humans, are subject to the human brain being good at detecting big differences but bad at detecting small changes from standard instructions.”

Eventually, data link will allow for the move to more complex four-dimensional (4-D) trajectories that will enable the transmission of instructions directly to the FMS on the aircraft and relay instructions for the location of the aircraft in both space and time. “To be able to tell the aircraft where to be in enough detail for 4-D trajectory requires sending quite a lot of information to the aircraft. Sending that through voice radio would just take too long and be too complicated,” says Clinch.

As airlines, such as Fed Ex and American Airlines, begin trialing the technology within the U.S., adoption is slow but steady, and Clinch expects it will pick up drastically within the next few years.

“The FAA ATC system modernization moves slowly, but once it starts moving it creates a tidal wave, and for NextGen Data Comm that tidal wave is the addition of CPDLC to the Lockheed Martin provided En-Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) System,” says Clinch, referring to the planned update of the current ATC host computer that is designed to allow faster processing of route request and in-flight route changes. “When that upgrade, planned for 2019, gives domestic controllers access to en-route CPDLC, it will probably be the biggest change to the way they work since the introduction of radar.”

Surface Communications

While connectivity is upping the game for aircraft during flight, it’s changing the landscape for surface communications as well. Looking to the near future, the FAA is currently in the process of implementing System Wide Information Management (SWIM), which makes use of the Federal Telecommunications Infrastructure (FTI) to allow for airports to share safety-critical data as a tool for flight management operations and, as such, increase interoperability. With the agency reporting that the program is 60 percent complete, it’s likely the program could be up and running sometime in 2016.

“The surface of the airport has generally been defined as kind of a black hole,” says NATCA’s Davis. “Collectively, from amongst the many different stakeholders in the system, the only person who really knew what was going on, on the surface, was the ground controller within that particular air traffic control tower.”

SWIM aims to eliminate that black hole for the rest of the stakeholders in the airport, including airline CEO’s, ATCs, vehicles on the runway, and others, to enhance data sharing and situational awareness in the aviation ecosystem.

“What SWIM does is come along and take the huge value being presented to that one ground controller for safety, and allow everyone else — within security limits, of course — to have access to it. That’s where connectivity comes into play, it blows the doors off of common situational awareness,” says Davis, who describes the system as connecting the network of different nodes throughout the airport to provide one complete “picture” of operations.

Currently, the SWIM network allows stakeholders to access data such as Notices to Airmen (NOTAMS), pilot reports, weather, and surface movement radar, with access to traffic flow and aircraft metering information in the works this year. Controllers at the Southern California Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) are already making use of SWIM to coordinate more efficiently with airport towers through access to information from the Airport Surface Detection Equipment – ModelX (ASDE-X) radar and surveillance system.

“In the Southern California TRACON we set up the network and ground radars at San Diego, Orange County, John Wayne and LAX airports and were able to leverage that SWIM architecture to provide radar controllers with a picture of the runways they are servicing,” said Davis.

Once a nation-wide, fused SWIM network becomes available, all data collected for weather, ground operations and beyond, can be accessed with a few clicks of a button, according to Davis. But with that comes its own set of problems when deciding where to distribute extra capacity that may arise from the system.

“Now, we can all look at the same picture, but we have to decide how we want to influence it,” he says.

SEA historical flight tracks can be analyzed in 3-D in the Exelis EnvironmentalVue System (Arrival Tracks in Red, Departure Tracks in Blue). Photo: Exelis.

As SWIM takes its first steps at Southern California’s TRACON, companies such as Exelis are already making use of NextGen data in surface communications to enhance operations at airports through access to Internet connectivity. The Exelis Symphony Suite is an integrated platform for airports that provides airline and airport operators, alongside Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs), with products that assist in the proactive management of everything from surface operations, revenue and billing, environmental compliance, fleet and asset tracking for airlines, and overall traffic flow monitoring, according to Ted Carniol, general manager of commercial aviation services at Exelis.

“The key to all this is the underlying data: our Exelis NextGen data set,” says Carniol. “The key to providing all these applications is the connectivity we have with every available surveillance source; for the U.S. it’s every available surveillance source in the NAS. We have direct connectivity to every en-route radar, every terminal radar, all 35 ASDE-X surface surveillance sites, the [Airport Surface Surveillance Capability] ASSC, as well as our own [Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast] ADS-B network.”

Exelis then takes all of the data collected from these sources and fuses it together with a live connection to the FAA’s host system for flight information and comes up with one track for every aircraft in the United States, both with or without tail numbers. Access to data can then allow a complete picture of operations to allow more collaborative decision making for operations such as aircraft noise monitoring, flight and runway vehicle tracking, de-icing operations, etcetera.

Exelis is able to access and use this information through a $1.8 billion contract it won from the FAA in 2007 to manage the foundation of NextGen. Under the terms of the contract, Exelis was required to design, deploy and operate a nationwide ADS-B ground infrastructure as well as Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Re-broadcast (ADS-R) and Traffic Information System – Broadcast (TIS-B) services. By gathering the information from these resources, Exelis has access to a complete picture of the NAS that allows the company to leverage the FAA’s investment in NextGen today, instead of sometime in the next few years.


Flying under the radar is the Aeronautical Mobile Airport Communications System (AeroMACS), which is taking steps forward to provide a wireless, broadband network to services on the airport’s surface. AeroMACS is being positioned as the first NextGen Data Comm system that will enable Aircraft Access to SWIM (AATS), weather in the cockpit, and a whole host of other Airport Terminal Services (ATS) and Airline Operational Control (AOC) applications, once the network is implemented and avionics are developed, which shouldn’t be too far into the future.

The system fits in with current FAA initiatives under the NextGen Priorities Joint Implementation Plan, which identifies the four highest priority capabilities that the FAA’s NextGen Office developed in collaboration with the aviation industry.

“One of these priorities calls for ‘Improved Surface Operations,’ which involves the sharing of greater amounts of data with stakeholders to provide measurable surface efficiency improvements. As a wideband, wireless communications system operating in protected spectrum and supporting the transmission of safety and regularity of flight services on the airport surface, AeroMACS is ideally suited to support this NextGen priority,” explains Brent Phillips, a systems engineer at the FAA and active member of the ARINC committee that has set forth a resolution to establish and publish a set of avionics standards for avionics Line Replaceable Units (LRUs) that can access the AeroMACS network.

Within the United States, the FAA is looking to use AeroMACS to replace or supplement the existing cable loop communications system at airports, an initiative for which it has already turned on funding.

“Maintaining those cables is difficult and expensive,” says Willie Cecil, director of business development at Teledyne Controls, who is looking to leverage AeroMACS once it becomes available. “So the FAA decided to use WiMAX — or AeroMACS as it’s called in the industry — to enable the communication. This includes communication between airport vehicles, runway visual range and various airport operations.” The AeroMACS network is also relatively cheap to install when compared to the cable and loop currently in place, which can take $3 to $5 million per airport and months of disruptive maintenance. In contrast, Phillips says AeroMACS is projected to cost an estimated $300,000 per airport in less time.

The broadband network is already being installed at eight major airports under the ASSC program, a number that may increase to more than 50 airports if the FAA allocates more funding to the program according to Phillips. Going forward, AeroMACS may very well be the best solution for aviation authorities, airlines and airports as they look to upgrade an airport surface communications system that is currently being stretched to its limit, but both Phillips and Cecil believe the application of AeroMACS can and should be stretched beyond the air traffic applications that are currently driving development.

“One of the logical next steps is that the AeroMACS network that is put in the ground can also be used for the aircraft with an avionics box that goes in the aircraft,” says Cecil. As the only broadband communication system with a dedicated spectrum, Phillips sees AeroMACS as a key enabler for connected aircraft services that require high levels of security, availability and integrity, which are not currently available through cellular or Wi-Fi networks.

“For us, the opportunity we see with AeroMACS is to add the broadband capability it offers to our ground link product line and give these products an upgrade path from what they’re using today, which is either Wi-Fi or cellular, or both,” said Cecil, who noted that Teledyne is standing ready for when AeroMACS becomes available should airlines see the value in upgrading to access the network.

“The airport surface is the most congested environment and thus the most vulnerable to incursions and accidents,” Phillips concludes. “Challenges will arise in managing the flow of aircraft on the airport surface, and AeroMACS can minimize the potential for flight delays, meet international safety standards and reduce the time the aircraft spends on the taxiways and runways. By providing near real-time data, graphics and video to the decision makers, and graphical surface movement and guidance to the pilots, AeroMACS will enable more informed decisions to be made.”

Juliet Van Wagenenis Avionics Magazine’s junior editor.The key is data is available from the ADS-B program today and certainly with the movement toward more mobile applications being required for day-to-day business, we see that everything is based on Internet connectivity. That’s where things are going. It’s much easier to maintain, it’s greener and it’s easier.— Ted Carniol, ExelisSEA historical flight tracks can be analyzed in 3-D in the Exelis EnvironmentalVue System (Arrival Tracks in Red, Departure Tracks in Blue). Photo: Exelis.

Receive the latest avionics news right to your inbox