Thales Scores ‘Breakthrough’ with Data Comm Tower System

 - October 22, 2012, 11:45 AM
Wade Stanfield, a Thales ATM operations specialist, explains his company’s tower automation system during the Air Traffic Control Association conference in October. (Photo: Bill Carey)

The Thales-supplied tower ATC system chosen for the upcoming data communications trial at Memphis International Airport will, when active, become the first such product from the French aerospace and defense group to operate in the U.S. The automation system and controller display interface, used for managing aircraft on the airport surface, forms part of an integrated air traffic management system widely used outside the U.S. called TopSky. Thales formerly called the system Eurocat, but renamed it in March.

“It really is a breakthrough for us. It’s a trial, and it is a specific functionality, but it’s an important piece of our [business] strategy,” Thales ATM president and CEO Todd Donovan said of the TopSky deployment at Memphis.

Thales ATM, the Thales subsidiary located in Shawnee, Kansas, and Arlington, Virginia, has adapted the system to the FAA’s specifications under the agency’s Data Comm Tower Automation Platform (DTAP) program, designed to demonstrate direct text messaging between controllers and pilots for pre-departure and revised pre-departure clearances before takeoff. Pilots already receive pre-departure clearances in text format, but they come indirectly from ATC through an airline’s operations center. Controllers now must communicate revised pre-departure clearances due to weather or other factors by voice, which can prove a slow process at a busy airport.

The FAA awarded the $9.8 million DTAP contract to Thales ATM through prime contractor ITT Exelis under an umbrella program called Systems Engineering 2020, which established a portfolio of contracting teams qualified to accept task orders from the agency. In a solicitation last November, the FAA expressed an “urgent requirement” for a prototype tower automation platform to support data communications trials. “There was pressure from the [airline] user community to move forward and get the trials going and we were able to propose a solution [that used] a lot of existing automation technology,” Donovan said. “We were quickly able to take our core technology, make some small changes to adapt it to the FAA’s specific requirements and then get it to them to begin operational testing.” Thales installed hardware for the system at the Memphis tower in mid-September in preparation for the data communications trial with FedEx Express beginning in November.

Though it is a separate program, DTAP supports the FAA’s Data Communications Integrated Services (DCIS) program to build a nationwide data communications network connecting ATC facilities with data comm-equipped aircraft. On September 20 the FAA awarded the DCIS contract to Harris, of Melbourne, Florida.