Business & GA

Are Pilots Ready for Mobile IFR Clearances?

Mitre’s mobile IFR clearance prototype. Image courtesy of Mitre Corp.


As the proliferation of mobile device usage in flight operations continues to grow across all segments of aviation, general aviation pilots could soon have the option of going mobile to obtain instrument flight rules (IFR) clearances. Engineers at Mitre have been researching and developing a new mobile IFR clearance prototype to learn more about how this concept works and its future potential in aviation.

Research around the mobile IFR clearance concept began in 2014 when Mitre launched a new research project entitled “Mobile IFR Clearance Delivery at Non-Towered Airports.” The project focuses on creating a mobile device-based process for allowing pilots to receive electronically generated text-based IFR clearances. Using the FAA’s System Wide Information Management (SWIM) flight data publication service, the application would allow pilots to retrieve expected IFR departure clearance information in near real time on their mobile phone or tablet.

According to the FAA, to operate an aircraft in controlled airspace under IFR, pilots are required to file an IFR flight plan and receive an appropriate clearance from an air traffic controller. The voice-based process can become labor intensive, especially on routes with overly complicated waypoint descriptions or confirming new unexpected information such as new routing or heading assignments. At non-towered airports without a remote communications frequency, the process can be particularly challenging as well.

Paul Diffenderfer, project principal investigator at Mitre, said the prototype that’s been developed for the mobile IFR concept could make the clearance delivery process more efficient for both pilots and controllers.

“The vision for the near term is the pilot would be able to retrieve the clearance using a mobile app and then read it back verbally to ATC to give ATC confirmation the pilot received it accurately and would allow ATC to make corrections necessary to make sure it was delivered,” said Diffenderfer.

Mitre estimates there are an average of 4,000 IFR flight plans filed daily at non-towered airports, and currently 75% of the U.S. general aviation pilot population is using a portable or mobile device for flying that could work within this concept. In the longer term, Diffenderfer says the team would like to see a little more integration of the concept on the ATC side.

The mobile IFR clearance research team has already allowed several pilots to use a prototype app they created to enable the capability. Among the biggest advantages they found was the ability for the pilot to obtain a text-based clearance, versus verbally receiving the information from a controller. Using the app, the pilot would still be required to verbally confirm the information with the controller, but having the clearance visually represented in text format can provide some major reduction in the time required to do so.

“One of the things we’re actually hoping to help with also are situations where pilots would normally depart without picking up their IFR clearance, because they can be cumbersome. They may depart in marginal VFR conditions at a non-towered airport and pick up a IFR clearance in the air, which can add to the workload they’re experiencing while flying the aircraft,” said Kevin Long, project co-PI at Mitre.

In most cases today, when GA pilots fly out of smaller non-towered airports, they must make time consuming phone calls or radio communications to obtain oral IFR clearances from a flight service station or ATC facility servicing the region. Diffenderfer also made it clear that the app is not designed as a capability that would in any way compete with the FAA’s existing data comm deployment, which currently enables departure clearances using CPDLC and will eventually enable dynamic domestic en route capabilities into the future. Data comm is a much more technologically advanced and proven concept whereas the mobile IFR concept would be a way of speeding up the distribution IFR expected clearance information.

Mitre’s team has received positive feedback on the concept from the FAA, as well as general aviation groups such as GAMA, AOPA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). The team has been in discussions with the FAA about conducting a field demonstration at a popular GA airport within the next year. This field demonstration would use the existing prototype to evaluate the concept in a real world environment and address any safety or reliability issues.

“It’s something that could be transformational for ATC,” said Diffenderfer. “The technology may not be the challenging part, making it operational may be the more challenging part, we want to investigate that in the real world environment.”

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