FAA’s technologies workshop focuses on future systems

 - December 18, 2007, 6:53 AM

Flight and navigation technology can help pilots see and avoid threats, simplify cockpit management and know their situation and parameters with precision. The future may advance all of these capabilities, though not always for the original reasons.

One unintended result of technological advances is that some of the capabilities developed to aid pilots can also be used to monitor them. For example, tools developed to enhance the pilot’s situational awareness can provide information about the pilot’s actions to other parties, such as insurance companies and the FAA.

This summer in Arlington, Va., the FAA New Technologies Workshop examined new but two-edged swords in the scabbard of aviation technology, each of which has the advantage of improving safety and the disadvantage of increasing the potential for third-party monitoring of pilot decision-making. More than 450 attendees, 24 exhibitors and a chorus of speakers trumpeted the benefits of technology, while hinting at its dark side.

More than a quarter of the attendees were scientific and procurement staff from the nearby Pentagon. Another wave splashed in from the airlines. The remainder were academics, avionics scientists and regulators. Only a small contingent from the corporate flight community heard opening remarks from Peggy Gilligan, FAA deputy associate administrator for regulation and certification.

“These new products and the economic climate will allow more private owners to enter the world of jet aviation. Now there’s a thought for us to deal with,” she said. “Imagine the Airbus A380, with an mtow of 1.3 million pounds, followed by a five-seat Eclipse 500.”

“The majority of the FAA budget comes from a trust fund of passenger ticket taxes, so as the industry has suffered, the FAA has had to curtail spending,” reported Gilligan, explaining that security needs and airline projects have remained the central priority.

Developing Security Systems
Todd Stock, the principal investigator for airspace alerting and avoidance systems at Mitre, said that business aviation remains a research priority at the company’s center for advanced aviation system development. “In the last year we’ve had thousands of TFR and ADIZ violations, with half of these in the Washington, D.C. area. Of those, one-third are from the general aviation sector and two-thirds are from the public-use sector, such as police and customs,” estimated Stock. Mitre is developing a low-cost system to help pilots avoid TFRs.

Stock demonstrated the system using a Hewlett Packard iPAQ PocketPC running Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004 “to trick the PDA into thinking it’s airborne in a Learjet 45.”

“The simulator compares the GPS position of the airplane with the location of known TFRs. If you turn toward the TFR, it says you have a conflict, tells you the distance from the boundary in nautical miles and in minutes of flight and recommends evasive action.” Though Stock used a Learjet for the demonstration, at this stage of development, the program “is strictly for VFR aircraft, for the lower-end guys without glass.”

The Mitre prototype allows datalink integration for updates on the fly. Its alerting and avoidance algorithm will support PDAs, electronic flight bags (EFBs) and GPS navigators to issue a visual TFR alert and an aural warning beginning when the airplane is five minutes from the boundary. The display blinks an arrow to suggest evasive action. A vertical watch bar illuminates when the airplane is abeam five miles and 45 degrees of heading and within 500 feet of the TFR’s ceiling. The bar turns red within 300 feet.

The FAA will test the prototype before year-end using Black Hawk helicopters flown by the Department of Homeland Security and Customs.

Pilots who are concerned that the FAA might use the sequence in enforcement actions can rest easy, for now. Authorities say there are no immediate plans to make the sequence available to the pilot or to the FAA during any enforcement actions that result from a violation.

Flight Recording and Reconstruction
However, the ability to replay pilot actions is key to a product introduced by Dr. Urban Lynch, president of UHL Research Associates. His 1.5-pound, $2,500 flight reconstruction system (FRS) can capture 4,000 continuous flight hours from its permanent mount, with a detachable flash memory card holding 650 hours for evaluation.

Lynch emphasized the device’s role as a training tool. “An instructor can grade a maneuver during live flight, then the student can take the recording home for analysis,” suggested Lynch. Its software algorithm translates timed GPS data to deduce the position in latitude and longitude; altitude; indicated airspeed; rate of climb; load factor; flight-path elevation and heading; bank angle; angle of attack; and body axis yaw, pitch and roll.

“USAF testing has demonstrated the UHL-FRS flight reconstructions to be within 10 percent of ‘truth,’” said Lynch, who first developed the technology for air combat and formation training. “Its main use now is for flight reconstruction for the NTSB…but the greatest need is for flight operations quality assurance.”

Some wondered whether sharing such data could have negative repercussions for pilots. Airplanes with the device have a decal on the tail both to help recover the device after a crash and to inform affected parties that they are under scrutiny.
“A lot of OEMs are interested in this device for liability purposes and for insurance reduction,” noted Lynch. He presented a typical post-flight report in painstaking detail, including a simulator exercise to first re-create a landing approach, then a case of “death spiral” leading to a fatal crash. Though the device was built for training purposes, insurance companies and those who lease aircraft have shown greater interest than pilots.

 “This device can record any instance of exceeding limits set by the owner, whether for airspeed, pitch or another flight control [parameter],” said Lynch.

“For every innocuous application there is an ominous one,” noted Lynch. “Just as the UHL-FRS can be used by instructors to point out student mistakes, so can it also be used as an all-seeing Big Brother to monitor who went where and did what. If someone exceeded certain set parameters, they’d have some explaining to do. It could prove liability so that insurance companies and victims’ families could seek redress.”

Integrating Cockpit Warnings

Steve Young, who leads business development at Honeywell for guidance, navigation and control technology, said that too many cockpit warnings compete for attention. Honeywell is working to create a single warning, via its Ancoa concept (alerting and notification for conditions outside the aircraft).

“The proliferation of these systems–weather radar, EGPWS, TCAS–has had several undesirable consequences. The sheer number of alerts by disparate systems can be overwhelming. Contradictions, lack of prioritization and inconsistent alerting conventions can combine to impose a very high workload on pilots in critical operational situations,” Young explained.

Honeywell’s four-year Ancoa project, funded by NASA, aims to integrate unrelated systems and multiple modalities.

“Consolidating threats ranging from weather and terrain to traffic within a single system presents enormous design challenges,” noted Young. One patented approach has been to simplify weather to dots rather than bands of color, which can obscure the underlying data. Pilots can adjust the transparency of the dots using a single knob, to reveal the terrain or other threats.

Wes Ryan of the FAA Small Aircraft Directorate agreed that standards in alerting as well as overall reporting require uniformity. Ryan summarized efforts, in partnership with GAMA, to standardize the Part 23 cockpit, beginning with an agreement to call it a “flight deck.”

“We’re seeing our process leading to instrumental change, and that’s meant to be a pun,” quipped Ryan, who is drafting an advisory circular to reference GAMA publication #12, Recommended Practices and Guidelines for an Integrated Flight Deck/Cockpit in a 14 CFR/Part 23 Aircraft. Critics worry that the move is an example of regulation by advisory circular, but Ryan wanted to address what he calls “mode confusion.”

With ever more integration of data once shown on round dials, pilots have lost the original context of position of the primary six instruments on the front panel. The challenge is in combining displays while ensuring clarity as to the mode in effect.

Ron Swanda, senior v-p of operations at GAMA, developed new language for publication #12 to require training during the first transition to an integrated cockpit, then a self-evaluation of knowledge and abilities before flying an integrated cockpit from another manufacturer. Many in the audience felt that the publication comes closer than GAMA ever has to endorsing a type rating for the entry-level general aviation pilot, though Swanda stressed that the association has no drive to do so.

Swanda has called to standardize the color functions for instruments and controls, to create uniform abbreviations and labels, and to equalize sizes and colors across manufacturers.

Ryan added that the new flight control capabilities that integration creates might change the way pilots fly. “A constant lateral stick pressure may simply establish a bank and turn instead of continuing to roll the aircraft.”

Changing the National Airspace System
Jerry Davis, a senior consultant to AMTI, and Bruce Tarbert, acting manager of the FAA Area Navigation and Required Navigation Performance Office, were enthusiastic when discussing the future of the national airspace system.

“Legacy navigation systems forced us to design the airspace to fit the desired number of airplanes,” said Davis. “Under the [new] containment concept, the required total system performance is designed into the aircraft, which requires the aircraft to fit into the desired airspace. Using a containment-based system is the right way to go, especially as capacity is strained over the next 50 years.”

Navigation technologies are “the most mature” and will therefore come first, predicted Davis and Tarbert. Aircraft equipped with GPS, FMS, RNP and EGPWS are quickly replacing legacy aircraft. The global fleet is evolving at the rate of 1,000 large airliners per year, and the fleet size will double by 2024. Almost all large airlines will be using glass cockpits by 2009 and Rnav by 2019. The general aviation fleet will grow by 35,000 aircraft by 2015.

Given such growth, Davis, on behalf of the performance-based operations aviation rulemaking committee, felt that the time is now to introduce new acronyms.

“We’re calling the current environment PBRnav for performance-based Rnav, and the containment- based future will be called CBRnav. The CBRnav operations can be handled with current production Bombardier and Embraer aircraft. We have the opportunity to create a national airspace system that is seamless from point to point with obstacle clearance and route to route separation.” Davis said that PBRnav will be implemented everywhere, while the CBRnav plan will be implemented where beneficial.

“The Part 91 ‘operations specifications’ or equivalent processes will still be accommodated.” Davis noted that general aviation and corporate aircraft business cases were built on safety, access and predictability, aiming for instrument approaches with verbal guidance to all runway ends, lower minimums to fields constrained by navaids or obstacles and instrument departures from all runways.

Nonetheless, “Where beneficial, a simultaneous ILS/CBRnav approach will be developed,” said Davis. “VOR, DME and ILS will remain in use for a long time.”
Paul Fontaine, who leads the FAA Safe Flight 21 Program, said that by 2009 some 11 percent of world airspace will use automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B).

ADS-B begins with a GPS unit, with a digital datalink for that aircraft to broadcast its position to other aircraft. The information can be routed from ADS-B ground stations to ATC facilities. Panelists discussed the upgrade of ADS-B to include traffic information service broadcast (TIS-B), which would present non-ADS-B radar traffic, along with flight information services broadcast (FIS-B) to uplink text and graphical weather as well as select notams and special-use airspace warnings.

Alaska is in full test for ADS-B possibilities, through the Capstone program. Elmer Webster exhibited Phase II of Capstone, based in southeast Alaska, using the wide area augmentation system (WAAS) for the en route portion of VFR flights outside the operational service volume of ground-based navigational aids. Southeast Alaska, according to the FAA, is “a more environmentally challenged area of the state.” More than 50 Part 135 operators now participate, and 200 will eventually take part.

ADS-B will move to unnamed East Coast routes, with ground stations expected to be in place by year-end. FAA officials say that the time frame will unfold “over the next several years,” and that broadcast services will be available at unnamed key sites “between Atlantic City, N.J., and Miami.”

Webster used a Chelton Flight Systems simulator to display ADS-B tracked aircraft. On review are some of the 100 aircraft equipped by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., and Prescott, Ariz.

“We can lock just on this tail number,” said Webster, pointing with the cursor. “We can show his trail, center the display on his track.” Elmer dropped a menu bar to record the aircraft’s track. “A flight instructor tells a student to go out and fly his solo, then monitors that flight from the airport office to see that he meets all of his turns and required maneuvers.” Webster switched his laptop display to a feed from Bethel, Alaska, where the system has been in test since January 2001.

“We can watch them take off and fly patterns,” he smiled. Low-power ADS-B units can also be integrated into ground vehicles. Webster showed every movement of a subject aircraft pulling off for engine run-up and turning its nose into the wind, then showed a ground vehicle such as a snowplow crossing the Bethel taxiway, all from his laptop in the hotel ballroom in Virginia.

“The only way you’ll see them on this system is if the operator is broadcasting ADS-B. Yes, an operator can see all the other operators who may have otherwise blocked their N-numbers.” Webster agreed that the system could audit such activity as the non-business use of a corporate aircraft.

“I’m asked all the time, ‘Won’t terrorists be able to use this information?’ No. Those threats are from shoulder-launched missiles and they need eyeballs on the target to be effective,” though Webster acknowledged that most companies want to protect details about officer travel, to prevent kidnap and other harm.

Peter Skaves, team lead for the FAA avionics systems branch, and Captain Joe Burns, director of flight standards and technology for United Airlines, discussed the new application of electronic flight bags. Originally meant to reduce paperwork, they have become a recordable display for security threats.

“Fortunately or unfortunately, EFBs are now used for cabin surveillance,” said Skaves. Burns repeated the old adage that “It takes more paper than jet fuel to get airborne.” In fact, the load was costing United a boggling $3.5 million per year in back injuries from pilots hauling paper. Burns highlighted an emerging application for its EFB to display and capture video input from the cabin, fed to a server and a digital Ethernet.

“United can now send images of any ‘cabin disruption’ to Inmarsat for international flights, and to Verizon’s domestic network,” said Burns.

One sure way to prevent disruption is to leave the passengers behind. Maybe the pilot, too. Phil Potter and Jed Sturman discussed the integration of high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles (Hale UAVs) into the national airspace system. The project is called Access Five.

“Access Five seeks to remove the barriers to aviation’s most compelling new offering in decades,” promises FAA and NASA literature. “The Access Five program is necessary to eliminate the current regulatory restrictions limiting the ease of access of these vehicles to the NAS.”

Currently, UAVs can fly under an FAA procedure called the Certificate of Authorization (COA), which allows specific missions that Access Five officials call “far too restrictive and cumbersome to support on-demand civil and commercial applications that are emerging.”

Their vision is for “file and fly ease,” for routine operations beginning above FL400; the next stage may enable unmanned flight above FL180; then, to designated airports or elsewhere in case of emergency. Finally, they imagine true “file and fly” operation, “the ease of access afforded to manned aircraft.”