Farnborough Air Show

ITT takes leading role in devising next-gen ATM

 - July 16, 2010, 1:37 AM

You could be forgiven for thinking that the best part of a generation has been expended in talking up the promised benefits of the U.S. NextGen air traffic management system. But, like its counterpart Single European Sky program over here, NextGen is now becoming a reality and the ITT group is a big part of this reality. In May, along with Boeing and General Dynamics, it shared in a $4.4 billion contract from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to start making the NextGen infrastructure come alive.

ITT’s share of the Systems Engineering 2020 program will be worth $1.4 billion over the next 10 years. “SE2020 is not so much a building program as a systems engineering effort,” explained Mike Wilson, president of ITT Information Systems. “We are going to help the government to tackle some of the technical puzzles and to validate the new technologies and procedures.”

A key factor in FAA’s selection of ITT has been its role over the past three years as prime contractor in the ADS-B program (automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast). This network of what will eventually be 800 radio stations will be a key component in the communications, navigation and surveillance (CNS) architecture that will form the spine of NextGen. ITT has installed 168 radio stations across the U.S. and 123 are already active in FAA’s operational network. The ADS-B network, which includes installations on oil platforms that have brought radar surveillance to the Gulf of Mexico for the first time, is due to be fully up and running by 2013.

ITT and its partners now face a massive systems integration task that will see them connect these radio stations via a telecommunications network built on fiber optics, copper wire and satellite links. Network software will relay data from aircraft and rebroadcast data from the ground to these aircraft, along with weather and flight information. The aircraft will use these inputs to validate their positions and vector information and all of this will be consolidated and out put on air traffic controllers’ displays.

Wilson told AIN that ITT’s reputation from the ADS-B project is what won it FAA’s trust for SE2020. But in some respects the company’s meteoric rise in the air traffic management hierarchy is surprising, given that until very recently it was on the fringes of this field.

“We were a bit of an upstart when we won the ADS-B contract, beating Raytheon and Lockheed Martin,” he declared. “It has been our breakthrough as a systems integrator because we saw ADS-B mainly as a network problem in that solving the surveillance problem for FAA is not just an air traffic control issue.”    

In attacking the task from a different angle, ITT knew enough to know that it didn’t know everything. This realization led to what Wilson characterized as “very creative partnering” and a “broad array of talent” that includes radio provider Thales, Rockwell Collins, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, United Airlines, Embraer, Bombardier and Air New Zealand, along with communications infrastructure from domestic telephone company AT&T.

The next step in infrastructure integration for NextGen is the data communications program, for which contract bidding is due to start before year-end, ahead of an award being made in 2011. The integration will involve modernizing communications between the air and the ground with existing voice traffic between pilots and controllers being augmented by sophisticated data links.

“NextGen is really taking shape now and real money is being spent,” said Wilson. “It is a very complicated enterprise and building the infrastructure alone is a necessary but not complete step. SE2020 is due to accelerate the adoption of the technology. There is a need to align the airlines and the air traffic controllers, and some of the benefits will be here before 2020.”

For ITT (Hall 3 Stand A8), NextGen could be a stepping-stone to other similar systems integration challenges around the globe in India, China, Southeast Asia, Africa and South America. It is certainly a chance for the U.S. group to underline the fact that it is now much more than a manufacturer of high-performance, standalone black boxes.