ATM Modernization, Business & GA, Commercial, Embedded Avionics

DataComm Makes the Business Case, Experts Say

By Juliet Van Wagenen | October 19, 2015
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[Avionics Today 10-19-2015] Operators, regulatory agencies, Air Traffic Controllers (ATCs) and manufacturers alike are seeing the benefits of Data Communications (DataComm) trials currently taking off in Memphis and Newark Liberty International airports in the U.S.

Participants on the DataComm Panel at the 2015 Avionics for NextGen conference
Participants on the DataComm Panel at the 2015 Avionics for NextGen conference

The DataComm system provides a direct, digital text-based communication link between air traffic controllers and aircraft Flight Management Systems (FMS) to provide safety of flight clearances, instructions, traffic flow management, flight crew requests and reports. It is also one of the most transformative Air Traffic Management (ATM) overhauls coming to the U.S. National Airspace System (NAS) under NextGen.

With trials underway in both the U.S. and Europe, panelists at the DataComm panel during last week’s 2015 Avionics for NextGen conference, reported impressive progress as they look to tackle some of the last hitches in DataComm implementation.

“With the worldwide operation that we have, Datacomm is very important to us overall, particularly with the timeliness of the operation and looking to see where we can safely save minutes off the operation,” said Josh Kendrick, managing director of flight technical at FedEx flight operations, one of the four airlines tasked with evaluating the system.

“In particular when we launch airplanes out of Memphis, we have 140 to 160 departures in a span of a couple hours, and if we hit a weather reroute out of there, the time savings in the time it takes to issue new clearances and things like that and go from [Pre-Departure Clearance] back to voice is a pretty compelling business case. At Memphis we were able to demonstrate a 6 to 8 minute savings if not a little bit more every time a reroute was issued,” said Kendrick, noting that this helped to seal the business case to equip with the necessary equipment for the DataComm trials.

ATCs are also finding the system saves time and reduces workload across the board, particularly during re-routes or times of inclement weather.

“The fact that you can send these clearances to the aircraft and be able to count how many are ready to go and have them depart from that airport in just a matter of minutes instead of having to wait 15 to 20 minutes makes it better to plan with traffic to depart these aircraft, too,” said Chad Geyer, DataComm Article 48 representative at the National Air Traffic Controller’s Association (NATCA).

The system can also save time for equipped aircraft during a reroute or bad weather, and Geyer noted he had seen aircraft equipped with DataComm receive clearances faster, enabling them to jump the line for take off.

“It’s only a minute here, a minute there, but those holes in the sky close up pretty fast so a couple of minutes could end up costing you hours,” Geyer said.

The trials, which launched in 2013 and are thus far way ahead of schedule, are only the beginning for the technology, which David Bowen, chief of ATM at the Single European Sky ATM Research Joint Undertaking (SESAR JU) sees as the backbone for SESAR. In particular, it is essential in enabling 4-D Trajectory technology, which takes the traditional three-dimensional approach toward planning and execution of flight trajectories by ATCs and adds the fourth dimension, time.

“Datacomm is an absolute and fundamental enabler for the future SESAR concept,” said Bowen. “The idea of trajectory-based operation as a cornerstone of the SESAR concept relies on a capable and reliable DataComm between the air and the ground, because the aircraft becomes part of the system. Having it linked into the system to have it both provide and issue data is not an option.”

In the long term, Bowen says Europe is relying on DataComm to enable multi-link data links for the ATM infrastructure.

“We’re looking at a system that is made up of data links depending on the situation with a certain terrestrial environment. We look to future capabilities in coming years to fulfill that terrestrial component. We’re looking at a satellite component both to fulfill the data link in oceanic areas but also to provide the data link capabilities wherever the aircraft is operating. Finally, we see also see the potential for a surface component and for high-bandwidth short-range communications within the airport domain. That allows us to optimize the way we exchange information between the aircraft and the ground depending on the environment,” said Bowen.

To enable this, Bowen believes there will need to be a more flexible approach to avionics. He says the organization doesn’t want to be “sticking more and more radios on aircraft,” but will instead look to a more flexible avionics architecture enabled by a software-defined radio to allow the use of multiple links to exchange data.

There are still some issues in the short term, however. While the DataComm trials in the U.S. are set to expand next year, set backs from the economic downturn, among other reasons, mean that Europe is ahead of the U.S. in trialing and implementing the system. Thus far, they have encountered problems with the VDL 2 link in Europe, and are halfway through an 18-month trial set to engage “the Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs), the communication service providers, the industry and the end users all together to try and fix these issues, to understand why they’re happening and to come up with an answer in terms of what we have to do such that the system can be used.”

Bowen said the organization expects to see results as to how to resolve the issues with VDL 2 in 2016.

Cyber security also presents itself as an issue moving forward, which Bowen and Andy Beers, director of aeronautical sales at Cobham Satcom, believe need to be addressed across the aviation ecosystem as a whole.

“We’re just one link in the chain, so we can design the avionics but if another link isn’t adhering to the same security standards than it isn’t as secure. We’ve got to work together as an industry in all the different links of the chain to coordinate how we address this very broad issue,” said Beers, who’s company develops and produces hardware to enable DataComm.

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