Expect some hurdles for NextGen integration

 - October 28, 2009, 12:54 PM

One of the traditional buzz phrases in discussions about improving ATC has been the time-honored “system of systems” that envisions a National Airspace System in which everything meshes together smoothly. It will be some time before the U.S. realizes that vision with NextGen, according to Lockheed Martin’s Tom Dilenno, who spoke at last month’s Air Traffic Control Association Conference.

Dilenno pointed out that many of today’s NAS automation systems do not provide air traffic controllers with the consistent, accurate information they need to achieve the efficient operations NextGen requires. He attributes this to the fact that the current NAS is composed of multiple systems, each of which implements similar functions differently, and sometimes generates different results for the same type of information.

Dilenno noted that this situation is safe in today’s environment because different user groups employ the same systems for disparate purposes (for example, air traffic controllers for tactical separation versus traffic management coordinators for strategic flow management) and the differences do not exceed the accuracy needed for effective interaction among the user groups.

He cautioned, however, “Next-Gen operational concepts describe a future environment in which there is more cross-user-group collaboration, more data is exchanged between domains, and there is a merge of user roles/responsibilities from the different user groups. As NextGen operational initiatives are implemented, ensuring that consistent information continues to be provided to ATC and
all stakeholders is a challenge that requires cross-organizational cooperation within the FAA and a re-architecture of elements of today’s disparate systems.”

Unfortunately, Dilenno’s cautionary words are lost amid the media and political euphoria surrounding NextGen, where the transition is expected to amount to not much more than throwing a switch in the not-too-distant future to convert from old-fashioned radar and VORs and voice messages to the fully integrated world of satellites, data communications and 4-D trajectories.

A more realistic way to think of the transition is in terms of an old jigsaw puzzle, where the individual pieces never did fit too snugly together. Indeed, some have become downright sloppy, creating gaps in the overall picture. So now, smart young family members plan to update the old puzzle by replacing all the original pieces with new ones made from the latest high-tech material. Trouble is, some of those new pieces take a long time to get molded into the right shape, while others might end up taking the space formerly occupied by two or more of the old ones. And in several cases, the new ones might have to sit atop the old ones until they can be completely discarded. Consequently, replacing every one of the old pieces will take years. But when that day arrives, we are assured that the new puzzle will fit together perfectly.

Unquestionably, the transition to full NextGen will be a major undertaking, and hiccups have to be expected along the way. No matter how well tested the system is, small (and sometimes big) bugs almost inevitably appear.

It is to ensure that all the needed capabilities are in place and fully integrated that the FAA has wisely targeted NextGen’s complete operational implementation for around 2025. By that time, everything should be working together seamlessly.