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ICAO Q&A: ADS-B, ASBUs and Aircraft Tracking

By Woodrow Bellamy III | February 1, 2016
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All of the airspace modernization programs currently occurring across the globe, including the FAA’s NextGen in the United States and Single European Sky in Europe, are part of the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) Aviation Systems Block Upgrades (ASBUs). The majority of programs moving heavily into the deployment phase and aviation regulatory officials are beginning to help operators uncover the business cases and benefits of equipping their aircraft with avionics enabled by ground infrastructure and procedures being implemented as part of these programs. In the midst of all this, Avionics Magazine caught up with ICAO’s Air Navigation Bureau Director, Stephen Creamer, to discuss ADS-B, data link communications and overall progress with the ASBUs.

Avionics Magazine: Can you give us a general overview of the latest progress with ICAO’s Aviation System Block Upgrades? What are some of the main areas that ICAO is focusing on in terms of modernizing air traffic management internationally?

Creamer: The ASBUs are a series of improvements that are bundled in five-year packages, and, the way we have designed it, those five years go end-to-end. The first set started in 2013 and they are going to end in 2018; that is block 0, that is what we have spent a lot of time focusing on. We have spent our time making sure the ICAO member states understand the first blocks, that they have the implementation strategies in place for those items and that the are on the way to implementation.

For instance, ADS-B Out is Block 0 technology. The standards are all there, the operating procedures are generally there and the states are focusing on their regulatory schemes as well as the equipage on the ground to be able to support that technology. The uptake in all the ASBUs depend upon the operational need in the airspace’s concern. If you don’t, as a country, feel that you have an operational need to do equip, it might not be something that you’re picking up and doing right now.

What we’ve seen so far is that there has been a lot of energy in the United States around ADS-B. In Europe, they took a shot at implementing the basic Aeronautical Telecommunications Network (ATN)-based data link communications and they’ve essentially taken a pause now and are regrouping.

Avionics Magazine: What are some of the early challenges that have emerged associated with regional implementation strategies for the global Aviation System Block Upgrades?

Creamer: I think the early things that we have seen in the development of implementation strategies is an appreciation for adding on this focus around implementation planning, training and equipage synchronization. Even though we have standards on the books, they haven’t planned out the implementation of those standards in a way that was as thorough as it should be. We’re taking those lessons and working to develop improvements in the way we release standards.

Photo courtesy of ICAO

Avionics Magazine: Regarding airspace mandates, can you give us some perspective from ICAO as far as equipage mandates? We know the two biggest ones are the ADS-B Out mandates in the United States and Europe, but are there any other regions that feature equipment mandates that are aligned with the ASBUs?

Creamer: ICAO doesn’t set mandates on what’s necessary in a specific piece of airspace. The requirements for the airspace come largely through the provision of service through the Air Navigation Service Provider (ANSP). In international airspace, the airspace is delegated to states to provide the service on behalf of the international community. So in the North Atlantic, for instance, one of the hardest to describe, the ANSP is Nav Canada, the Ireland Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), or NATS U.K. All the ANSPs have to provide service in accordance with the regional air navigation plan. The air navigation plan for the region is an ICAO plan that is developed by the states providing the service and the states that have operators using the service. There has to be broad consensus in the level of requirement before it can be adopted.

So if the FAA mandates ADS-B Out, that’s an FAA decision, if in Europe they mandate that everyone needs data communications, that’s their decision. From the operator perspective, that means you have to look at the airspace and check if there has been any progress or what any mandates are, and know what the plans are in order to appropriately equip your fleet. We’re trying to get better at providing those forecasts through the ASBUs because it helps provide people with a way to rationalize what they are seeing when they witness different regions make these requirements.

Avionics Magazine: What about the work ICAO is doing around global aircraft tracking? Can you give us an update on that, in terms of what types of technologies and equipment ICAO is focusing on requiring for both ANSPs and airlines/operators?

Creamer: After the loss of MH370, we had identified a need amongst leaders in the aviation community, through the Aircraft Tracking Task Force, that there really did need to be a global requirement to track aircraft. We also identified that it would need to be a voluntary process that the airlines would institute for themselves, but because there were challenges institutionally to make that happen they says they wouldn’t be in a position where they could do that.

At ICAO, on behalf of the regulatory community, there was a proposal brought forward that operators operating over the high seas would need to track their aircraft a minimum of 15 minute intervals in airspace where there isn’t already tracking every 15 minutes. The tracking requirement, essentially means that an operator has to have real-time information transmitting from their aircraft, which the operator can store on the ground and have available should it be necessary for distress or Search and Rescue (SAR) purposes. ICAO is still looking to develop additional guidance regarding how proactive the operator should be or whether they would be in a response mode to search and rescue to an air traffic control provider or SAR provider. But, the need for them to proactively gather the data and have it available at the timeline has been approved at ICAO and we would expect that the different states would start to regulate implementation for their airlines as soon as possible so that the states are ready for the applicability to operate. That was adopted in our council on Nov. 18, 2015.

Avionics Magazine: Can you speak a bit more about the technologies required to achieve the proposed tracking standard?

Creamer: When it comes to the technologies, as I says, we didn’t spell out the technologies. Notionally, you can look at the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Contract (ADS-C) that’s available in the Future Air Navigation System (FANS) program, as being a suitable methodology. You could look at some of the Iridium-based tracking technologies that are available today as being suitable technologies. There are some other tracking vendors available that have proved their technologies. We didn’t tie the implementation down to any one solution, and of course everybody is watching very carefully because we know Aerion is about to start operational testing of their ability to track ADS-B on the 1090 MHz using a new package of Iridium satellite technology.

Even without the Aireon package there are other providers that have demonstrated some research and development capabilities to provide that same style of tracking with cube satellites and other small satellite deployments. We expect that marketplace is going to evolve on its own and provide the solution for the operators, and then it will be on the regulators to decide what is an acceptable means of compliance with the 15-minute interval requirement.

In our guidance material, we will not be looking for the kind of safety certification regime that you might normally expect to see because this isn’t safety technology as much as this is a contingency technology. We believe there’s some latitude we can give states to keep the cost respectable and allow the airlines to take advantage of the market.

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