Swim–a look inside NextGen’s own future private Intranet

 - October 1, 2010, 7:10 AM

If NextGen were an upcoming movie, Swim–for system-wide information management (Swim)–would get top billing for its leading role, and would certainly pick up the Best Supporting Actor award as well. That would only be fair, since Swim will provide the glue that will hold all NextGen’s ­myriad components together, according to speakers at a recent FAA/Air Traffic Control Association New Technologies Symposium in Atlantic City.

Breaking through the limitations of today’s communications and information dissemination processes, Swim will display all the current information required by specific segments of the industry with a few strokes of a keyboard, without intermediate steps or organizational filters, but with extraordinary flexibility and high levels of security protection. When the system is fully operational–currently forecast for the 2018 to 2020 period–flight departments will be able instantly to access weather, flight-planning services, delay and congestion status, Notams, pireps, navaids, airspace restrictions, airport conditions, RVRs and every other type of data whenever they are needed, 24/7. In other words, Swim will provide fast, total situational awareness to all operators, large and small, coupled when necessary with an understanding of why unusual situations currently prevail, and how long they might last.

But while similar in concept to today’s Internet, Swim will have no connection with the tumultuous world wide web. In cyber jargon, Swim will be a sophisticated aviation Intranet, denoting its highly secure access protocols that not only form a barrier to outsiders, but which also erect internal walls to partition various industry segments within it, such as separating flight operations, from, say, airport finance departments and homeland security.

In fact, some industry observers be­lieve that the inclusion of a U.S. Homeland Security segment in Swim will guarantee the highest level of data protection against external penetration. Others, however, believe that imposing international law-enforcement security levels on Swim to transfer, say, anti-terrorism intelligence to domestic and overseas partners is inappropriate for what will be an adequately protected civil asset, and would be better performed over an Interpol or similar network. This appears to be a continuing issue within the aviation community.

So how did Swim achieve such a dominant future role in NextGen? It really boils down to necessity, which first became evident to European future airspace planners in 1997, when they saw that their legacy data transfer and communications systems, which essentially mirrored those in the U.S., would be unable to cope with the forecast increase in traffic and new airspace procedures that Sesar–Europe’s equivalent to NextGen–would be expected to handle beyond 2020.

Swim in the Cockpit?

The Europeans also saw–as did, subsequently, the FAA–that besides Swim’s major operational benefits in supporting advanced procedures such as trajectory flight, super-density terminal operations, merging and spacing procedures and total user involvement in future airspace management, moving to Swim would also produce significant cost savings in discontinuing the maintenance of legacy facilities that the new system would replace.

The Europeans briefed the FAA on the need for Swim shortly after they conceived the concept, yet the agency didn’t appear to move strongly ahead with it for several more years, even after ICAO adopted Swim as an essential future international air traffic management tool in 2006, ahead of the formal launch of the FAA’s own program in 2007.

At that point, the FAA decided to commit to a $24 million Segment 1 development project. But catching up to the Europeans appears to be a costly business. By FY2009 the development budget swelled to more than $42 million, and rose again in FY2010 to more than $56 million. For FY2011, which starts this month, Swim’s development budget will float up to $92 million, as the FAA begins a move into Segment 2 activity.

The FAA currently forecasts that Swim will be fully operational in the 2018 to 2020 period. But this won’t be a Big Bang arrival. Already, early concept testing is under way with FedEx and others, and by 2015 a number of Swim’s services are expected to be routinely available to a wider cross-section of the community as the other key components of NextGen become operational.

Yet there’s still one oddity about Swim. Its architects appear divided on the question of whether its remarkable benefits should be extended to the flight deck, due to a number of technical issues. With the FAA’s development activity still in its infancy, now is surely the time for pilot groups to combine forces to ensure that flight decks are not left out of this vital loop.