Paper on way out in aviation's future

 - July 29, 2008, 7:23 AM

One of the least welcome rites of passage for copilots is the routine chore of updating the company’s flight operations documents, with Jeppesen manuals probably at the top (or the bottom, if you prefer) of the list. And the post-9/11 flood of TFRs hasn’t made the task any easier.

But speakers at a recent NASA conference on new communication, navigation and surveillance (CNS) technologies predicted that, one day, this task could be totally automated. Just when that day will arrive wasn’t entirely clear, but the consensus appeared to put it within the next two to five years for general aviation operators, and quite a bit earlier for the airlines.

The keys to this automation are expected to be the Internet, the Automatic Dependent Surveillance System-Broadcast (ADS-B) system and low-orbiting communications satellite networks such as Iridium. Currently, several government and private organizations are investigating optimum methods of taking the massive amounts of data involved and putting it into pilot- and avionics-friendly formats. Those two are vital: there’s no benefit, for example, in having a cockpit display screen simply list the lat/long coordinates of the boundaries of the latest TFR, or other restricted airspace, and the onboard avionics units must not be so complex as to price them out of reach.

The intent would be to put as much information as possible into accurate pictorial form–on a moving-map display, for example–for instant pilot recognition. This would virtually eliminate the several hundred restricted airspace violations recorded over the last six months.

The FAA’s Gary Livack outlined the broad concepts that agency personnel have identified as being compatible with its Safe Flight 21 program. The objective is to define an integrated Aeronautical Information Service/Flight Information Service (AIS/FIS) electronic database server that could provide pilots with a single source of safety-related, FAA-approved preflight and in-flight data. These could include weather, restricted airspace, notams, airport maps, arrival and departure procedures, VFR and IFR charts and precision, nonprecision and VFR approach charts.

Smart Card Technology

In operation, pilots would, before flight, use a computer “smart card” to download all information relevant to their planned operation from an FAA Internet terminal kiosk located at an FSS or an airport’s flight-planning area. (Eventually, it is expected that pilots could access the system through their home PCs, as is the case today with DUATS.) Then, inserting this card into the aircraft’s FMS or other onboard device would instantly update all stored information. During flight, updates would also be available via transmissions using Internet protocols from a ground-based ADS-B station network. This would be particularly valuable to pilots returning to U.S. airspace from overseas. (While ADS-B ground stations are currently operating only in Alaska for the FAA’s Capstone program, and a few are destined for Embry-Riddle’s training operation and for UPS at Louisville, Ky., AIN has separately learned that the FAA could install up to 29 stations along the U.S. East Coast as a precursor to an eventual 700-station nationwide deployment.)

Of course, the smart-card technique is not new, and is commonly used today to update FMSs and other system databases. But usually the cards are provided only periodically, typically on 28-day cycles. The Internet/ADS-B concept would allow instant updating at any time and from virtually any location.

As several other conference speakers made clear, aviation uses of the Internet are being investigated for a number of different applications, with one presentation envisioning its use in controlling VFR and IFR traffic at non-tower airports, even up to sequencing precision approaches. This, however, was not expected within the two- to five-year time frame mentioned earlier.

Yet for all its potential, the Internet is still some way from achieving the level of data security required by aviation users. Donald Kauffman of Honeywell pointed out that today’s ACARS and even tomorrow’s Aeronautical Telecommunications Network have known vulnerabilities that allow unauthorized persons to “eavesdrop” on air/ground data communications  and to track aircraft movements. Kauffman noted that the Airlines Electronic Engineering Committee is currently developing new security standards, and unquestionably this work will produce valuable inputs to bring the Internet closer to operational use in cockpits.