Progress on the FAA’s ambitious NextGen overhaul of the ATC system in the U.S. has reached a vital juncture, one in which a long list of high-tech challenges confronting developers must be addressed quickly to avoid program delays and cost overruns in the future.
That was the message from presenters at an RTCA-hosted NextGen symposium in Washington, D.C., in September, who warned that the complexities of the first total makeover of the U.S. ATC system in 60 years present significant risk. But FAA officials speaking at the event also pointed to progress in deploying ADS-B (automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast) ground stations across the U.S. and redesigning airspace around the nation’s busiest airports as reasons to be confident that NextGen initiatives under way now will pay significant dividends by the end of this decade.
“We’ve made good progress and we should all be proud of that,” said FAA director of surveillance and broadcast services Vinny Capezzuto, “but there’s still much work to be done.”
For all the benefits that developers of the FAA’s NextGen air transportation system are convinced they can achieve, the concept’s long-term vision can be realized only if commercial air carriers believe there is a business case for equipping with the technology. Otherwise, airlines will add only the bare minimum of what’s required and discard other NextGen technology, panelists said.
To assist airlines seeking to make a business case for equipping with NextGen avionics, ADS-B ground infrastructure prime contractor ITT has entered into a cooperative agreement with Nexa Capital Partners in Washington, D.C., to provide government-backed low-interest loans. “Realizing the benefits of NextGen requires that users equip with avionics supporting NextGen capabilities,” said ITT CEO Steve Loranger.
Operators Reluctant To Equip
Facing major losses in a fragile economy, the airline industry has told the FAA that carriers oppose plans to modernize the ATC system if the result is increased costs. Doug Parker, chairman and CEO of US Airways, said a year ago that if NextGen is going to impose additional costs on airlines, “we prefer to live without it at the current time.”
Even business jet operators, typically early adopters of new technology, will be reluctant to equip with NextGen avionics until clear standards are made available. A special aviation rulemaking committee formed in July has been tasked with exploring applications for use with ADS-B in avionics, which can deliver operational information and other data to properly equipped aircraft.
The FAA points to ADS-B as one of the most important underlying technologies in its plan to transform ATC from the current radar-based system developed in the 1950s to a satellite-based system capable of providing better surveillance precision and reliability. ADS-B uses GPS signals along with onboard avionics to transmit the aircraft’s location to ground receivers. The ground receivers then transmit that information to controller screens and cockpit displays in other aircraft equipped with ADS-B avionics.
ADS-B allows pilots to see what controllers see: namely, all other aircraft in the sky around them. Pilots are also able to see–and avoid–bad weather and receive continuously updated flight information such as temporary flight restrictions. The improved accuracy, integrity and reliability of satellite signals over radar means that controllers will be able to reduce separation between aircraft, thereby increasing capacity.
ADS-B also provides greater coverage, since ADS-B ground towers are much easier to install than radar stations. Remote areas without radar coverage, such as the Gulf of Mexico and parts of Alaska, are now covered by ADS-B. Relying on satellite signals instead of ground-based navigation aids also means aircraft can fly more direct routes, saving time while reducing fuel burn. UPS voluntarily equipped approximately 100 of its aircraft with ADS-B avionics from Phoenix-based Aviation Communication and Surveillance Systems, using the avionics maker’s merging and spacing techniques to add capacity at its busy Louisville hub.
Each year that passes without the adoption of clear standards, however, puts business jet operators one year closer to the FAA’s ADS-B mandate in 2020. “We have a 10-year window to equip, but if there is still debate about what the standards for ADS-B technology will turn out to be, operators will wait” until very near the start of the mandate to add the equipment, said Jens Hennig, vice president of operations for the General Aviation Manufacturers Association. “If everybody waits until the last minute, we won’t be able to do all the installations in time.”
Panelists at the NextGen symposium also debated how to integrate unmanned aerial vehicles in U.S. civil airspace. A special committee has been formed to develop standards for such operations. The missing link that is needed before UAVs can operate safely in the national airspace system is the adoption of proven sense-and-avoid technology that will permit pilotless craft to operate autonomously. There are also questions about the ability to establish reliable communications links that will allow a remote pilot to take control of a UAV mid-flight.
That challenge was demonstrated for the world to witness when a Navy Fire Scout UAV lost its com link and strayed into Washington’s restricted airspace on August 2. Operators eventually were able to re-establish the link, but not before the incident made national headlines.