ATM Modernization, Embedded Avionics

FAA on Schedule to Bring Data Comm to 56 Airport Towers This Year

By Woodrow Bellamy III | September 28, 2016
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A rendering of what a pilot sees in the cockpit while using Data Comm
What a pilot sees in the cockpit while using Data Comm, rendering. Photo: FAA.

[Avionics Magazine 09-28-2016] The FAA is on track to deploy the Departure Clearance (DCL) Air Traffic Control (ATC) tower services initial operating capability portion of its Data Communications (Data Comm) initiative at 56 airports by the end of 2016. On Sept. 27, the agency demonstrated the use of Data Comm on a UPS Boeing 767 and United Airlines Boeing 777 at Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia, one of the most recent airports to start operating with the service. 

Data Comm is one of the FAA’s four identified priority initiatives of its NextGen National Airspace System (NAS) modernization programs, enabling a direct link between ground automation and flight deck avionics for safety-of-flight clearances, instructions, traffic-flow management, flight crew requests and reports. Instead of handling these actions solely through voice communications in the domestic airspace, the Data Comm technology the FAA is deploying at airports throughout the NAS allows pilots and controllers to communicate via text messages between ground-automation systems and aircraft Flight Management Systems (FMS). 

“This eliminates a huge amount of traffic on the radio,” said UPS pilot Gregg Kastman to journalists and attendees of Tuesday’s Data Comm demonstration.

The functionality that the FAA’s Data Comm deployment enables is known across the aviation industry as Controller to Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC) and has been operational in oceanic airspace for nearly two decades with Future Air Navigation System (FANS) avionics. Moving the capability into domestic airspace is a priority for the FAA, as the agency expects Data Comm to save operators more than $10 billion over the 30-year life cycle of the program, and the FAA itself about $1 billion in future operating costs. 

The greatest benefits derived from providing pilots and controllers with the ability to text rather than vocally communicate information about departure clearances with complicated waypoints become realized “particularly during busy times of the day and in bad weather,” FAA Assistant Administrator for NextGen Jim Eck said during the demonstration. 

“This switch from voice to automatic messages doesn’t just speed things up, it also increases safety [by] reducing the chance of error while relaying information. Additionally, it allows controllers to send text instructions to several aircraft at once — a [much] more accurate process than having a lot of different conversations,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, in a presentation about Data Comm offered by the FAA prior to the Dulles Airport demonstration. 

To operate an aircraft using Data Comm, UPS describes the process as one in which a pilot first establishes a data link connection within the airport tower using a properly equipped aircraft. Then, a Clearance Delivery (CD) controller receives a request for a flight plan, including call sign, aircraft type, route of flight, requested altitude and other pertinent information. The controller then approves the flight route’s departure clearance, automatically uploading their approval to the aircraft’s FMS, where the pilot will accept the approval. 

If there is a need to send a re-route, the CD controller will send the entire re-route digitally, and the changes are then automatically uploaded to the aircraft again where the pilot must accept the new clearance. Each controller that then comes into contact with that flight, will communicate with the pilot based on the initial information verified by the CD controller. 

Earlier this month, the FAA also made a Final Investment Decision (FID) on the future of the Data Comm program, which focuses on facilitating initial en-route services by 2019, meaning air traffic controllers that manage aircraft at high altitudes will be able to exchange text messages with pilots for more advanced procedures. The FAA is already in the process of developing software for the 20 en-route air traffic centers throughout the NAS. U.S. airlines have committed to equipping 1,900 aircraft with Data Comm avionics by 2019 as well.

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