ATM Modernization, Commercial, Embedded Avionics

Satellite Industry Galvanizes around NextGen

By by Anne Wainscott-Sargent | September 1, 2015
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Satellite-based connectivity is shaping up to be an important underlying technology as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) moves its NextGen air traffic modernization initiatives forward. The strategies cover the gamut of multiple runway operations, Performance-Based Navigation (PBN), data sharing and data communications, but all focus on the concept of a connected airspace in which any controller can see any plane flying in the National Airspace System (NAS).

NextGen’s goal — to increase operational efficiency and improve surveillance and tracking of aircraft through better, more resilient data links — has been a vision in the making for a decade, prompted by the growing congestion and flight delays over the world’s largest and busiest airspace, where at any given time more than 5,000 planes are traveling through its skies.

The promise of NextGen includes shortened routes, reduced traffic delays and fuel savings. And following the air tragedies over the Brazilian coast in June 2009 and the southern Indian Ocean in spring 2014, enhancements to aircraft tracking also have implications for flight safety. However, the reality of how best to get there has proven complicated and costly — with contracts $4.2 billion over budget, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, and rising concerns about cybersecurity as aviation relies ever-more on computer systems to run critical operations.

While the pace of the FAA’s progress in overhauling its infrastructure has frustrated some, the satellite industry remains upbeat and supportive of NextGen. Here, Avionics Magazine talks to satellite’s leading players on how they see NextGen evolving in the next few years and the questions that remain top of mind.

ADS-B: Two Competing Space-Based Solutions

A key focus is the aviation industry’s adoption of Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B), the backbone of the NextGen system. ADS-B replaces conventional radar to give pilots and Air Traffic Controllers (ATCs) more precise situational awareness. It’s always on, and continuously broadcasts aircraft position and other data to any aircraft or ground station equipped to receive ADS-B.

“Governments and regions of the world can choose to deploy infrastructure on the ground or in orbit,” says Craig Peterson, a 25-year aerospace veteran and senior director of commercial systems marketing for Rockwell Collins, which provides a significant amount of the transponders, satellite navigation and display systems flying on aircraft today. “There is a very good balance to how the FAA and regions of the world are deploying these kinds of technologies,” he adds, noting that regions are being very thoughtful about whether to be more ground-based or to have a balance of both ground and orbital infrastructure that will give them integrity and a reliable back-up plan if they lose their on-orbit assets.

In the United States, the FAA has invested in hundreds of ground-based ADS-B systems and has mandated that qualifying aircraft flying over U.S. airspace be ADS-B-equipped by January 2020. Two Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite operators are vying for leadership in the space-based ADS-B market in the United States. Globalstar, through its partnership with ADS-B Technologies of Alaska; and Aireon, the joint venture of Iridium, Nav Canada, the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA), Italy’s Air Navigation Service Provider (ANSP) ENAV, and Naviair (the ANSP of Denmark).

Aireon Winnipeg Area Control Center. Photo courtesy of Aireon.

Aireon is scheduled to have an ADS-B payload aboard the first Iridium Next launch at the end of this year with all 72 (66 plus six spares) satellites launched by the end of 2017. It tapped Exelis (now Harris Corp.) as its system engineer and its data processing and distribution system provider — the same firm that installed and operates the network of ADS-B ground stations for the FAA. The first 42 payloads, which offer service over the 1090 MHz Extended Squitter (ES), are already built and ready to be shipped for testing at Orbital ATK’s facility in Arizona, according to Don Thoma, CEO of Aireon.

This year, the FAA will spend nearly $10 million on space-based ADS-B in its fiscal year 2015 budget, a fraction of what Iridium and Aireon have spent collectively to get the system developed and deployed. Aireon has a signed Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the FAA, which is a cooperative agreement to prepare for the use of space-based ADS-B in U.S. airspace. The intent is to “enable the FAA to be able to use space-based ADS-B in 2018 when the [Aireon] system goes live,” says Thoma. “The primary tenant of our business is to not require any additional equipage by the airlines other than what they already have been mandated to be equipped with ADS-B transponders.”

ADS-B Technologies/Globalstar is already flying ADS-B over its network, having accumulated almost 100 hours of actual flight-test experience. Their dual-link system, which is capable of tracking an aircraft’s position for every second of its trip, supports both the 1090 ES and the User Acceptance Testing (UAT) format preferred by general aviation aircraft operators.

“All of our system’s hardware and software are on the ground or in the aircraft, not on the satellites, which means fast and easier system maintenance and upgrades,” explains Skip Nelson, president of ADS-B Technologies. “With our ADS-B Link Augmentation System (ALAS), an aircraft’s baseline ADS-B transmissions remain unaffected. The aircraft can move freely between terrestrial networks and space-based networks, ensuring a much wider range of coverage. A further advantage may be that the transmissions are also capable of being encrypted.”

“The safety case for ALAS is extremely simple — it has few points of potential failure and it is very fast. The information gets to the controller in milliseconds and at approximately the same reporting intervals as ground-based ADS-B systems,” adds Jay Monroe, Globalstar’s CEO.

The system supports bidirectional datalinks — ADS-B In as well as Out. That means, in addition to reporting position, the system could communicate weather and other information directly into the cockpit because of the huge pipe to the airplane. This is significant, considering that 70 percent of all delayed flights are due to weather, according to the FAA.

Both executives say there is “nothing theoretical about our technology — we know it works.” All they need is a significant launch customer.

Oceanic Coverage with ADS-C

Thoma touts Iridium’s global footprint as a major differentiator, noting that global ANSPs in the United Kingdom, Canada, Italy, Ireland, and New Zealand continue to sign agreements, with India and Singapore to follow “soon.” Not surprising, providers are keen to supply ADS-B connectivity over the oceanic routes given those routes account for the biggest source of profitability for airlines.

“Our initial operational capability will be over the North Atlantic. The main benefit comes from reducing the separation between aircraft going over this well-traveled corridor from 30 miles of separation to 15 nautical miles,” says Thoma.

Airlines will save fuel by making that traffic more efficient and allowing aircraft to fly at optimal trajectories, he explains, projecting that annual fuel savings for an airline flying a three-and-a-half hour leg across the North Atlantic could total up to $125 million a year by 2018 when the Aireon system launches.

Today, oceanic flight tracking is done by the Future Air Navigation System (FANS) and Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Contract (ADS-C) systems. Developed by the International Civil Aviation Organization in partnership with Boeing, Airbus, Honeywell and others, the systems use Inmarsat’s third and fourth generation global satellites to monitor an aircraft’s position in the vertical and horizontal plane as frequently as required for the planned flight path. All wide-body Boeing and Airbus aircraft come equipped from the factory with FANS-capable avionics and close to 80 percent of the existing wide-body transoceanic fleet is equipped with this capability.

According to Mary McMillan, a 30-year commercial pilot, standards captain and Inmarsat Aviation’s new vice president for safety and operational services, “space-based satellite surveillance is not a new idea. Inmarsat pioneered the FANS system in the early 1990s, reducing the separation standard in the oceanic regions from 100 miles to 30 miles — essentially tripling the capacity of the oceanic regions using ADS-C.”

While supportive of the ADS-B movement overall, McMillan contends that it will not bring significant advantages to what ADS-C provides over the oceans today: a 4-D-trajectory-type operation. “With the development of ADS-C 20 years ago, we were able to see a three-fold increase of capacity over the oceanic regions. To put more traffic in the very highly utilized corridors, such as the North Atlantic, will require a very precise way of navigating that will also require two-way push-to-talk communications ability between the aircraft and the air traffic controller. The planned ADS-B systems provide only the surveillance component of the communications/navigation/surveillance goals for air traffic modernization in the United States and globally.

Toronto tower. Photo courtesy of Aireon.

The Future: ADS-B ‘In’

“We’ll actually see the biggest bang for the buck with ADS-B when we have the capability to actually pipe it into the cockpit,” McMillan says. That’s the idea behind ADS-B In. She says that, with the new PBN advances envisioned in NextGen, it’s definitely what’s coming next.

Conceptually, using ADS-B In, pilots will be able to use self-separation procedures where they will be asked to maintain separation from the planes in their vicinity. The dynamic between controllers and pilots will change significantly when this becomes a reality.

“Once we have the ability to use the airplane as a node of information that can be passed up and down between the airplane and to other nodes in the system, it’s going to affect established roles and responsibilities, which will result in changes to how we train people, the expectations we have in terms of fallback procedures, and the exchange of responsibility,” McMillan continues. “We’re on the cusp of redefining this next generation of aviation — it is going to change how we think about aviation.”

But before that future is fully realized, the industry needs to embrace a single standard for tracking aircraft, says Andy Beers, director of aeronautical sales for Cobham Satcom, a key Inmarsat partner for SwiftBroadband Safety Services. “We need a new minimum standard along with different levels of detail for flight tracking to adhere to,” he says. “I know that the governing bodies are making this a high-priority issue and I expect a lot of clarity will come out on this topic in the near future.”

NextGen GA Fund Hopes to Accelerate Getting GA Planes ADS-B-equipped

The major hurdles to the satellite component of NextGen are funding and equipage, especially the Herculean task of getting all existing aircraft in U.S. airspace retrofitted with ADS-B technology by 2020. While most of the air traffic is with the air transport side of the market, the smaller General Aviation (GA) market represents a massive number of aircraft that also must comply with the FAA mandate. “More than 100,000 GA and business aircraft are affected by the mandate — that’s a huge number,” says Chris Quilty, a satellite and space analyst at Raymond James.  The new high-precision receivers that the ADS-B standard requires are not cheap, and many GA operators have not been eager to be first in line to get their aircraft retrofitted, hoping that the price may go down as the mandate gets closer. James Hughey, managing partner of the NextGen GA Fund, predicts that reduced prices are unlikely to occur. “Even if it does happen at the hardware component level, the repair stations and installers face more demand on the labor side, which means labor rates and the cost of installs will likely rise in response,” he says.

The NextGen GA fund was created 18 months ago to provide low-interest loans to GA owners in the hopes of accelerating the pace of equipage. The fund also hopes to improve the transparency of what aircraft owners need to know to get the equipment upgrades done. In addition to financing, Hughey’s group offers the Jumpstart 2020 program, aimed at the lower end of the GA market where cost is a main driver. The program offers the ability to reduce price and simplify buying decision by putting together discounts and bundling packages from equipment manufacturers. Hughey says the fund is offering a small number of loans now, but has had limited ability to approve a large scale of loans because he is still waiting for approval from the FAA for his application for FAA-backed loan guarantees, which he hopes comes through by the end of the summer.

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