FAA Advances NextGen Data Comm, Voice System Acquisitions

 - November 3, 2012, 1:55 AM
At the Air Traffic Control Association conference in October, Wade Stanfield, a Thales ATM operations specialist, explained the ground automation system Thales will provide for airline data comm trials. (Photo: Bill Carey)

The FAA launched the second and third major acquisitions of the NextGen ATC modernization effort, naming Harris both to replace existing point-to-point voice switches with a networked system and to build a nationwide air/ground data communications (data comm) network.

In late August, the FAA awarded Melbourne, Fla.-based Harris an overall 15-year contract with options, worth potentially $291 million, under the National Airspace System Voice System (NVS) program. The program calls for replacing 17 different voice switches at ATC facilities with an Internet Protocol-based voice communications network. On September 20 the agency awarded Harris a seven-year, $332 million contract under the Data Comm Integrated Services (DCIS) program. The contract includes 10 one-year options that would extend the program to 2029.

The NVS and Data Comm efforts are among six core NextGen “transformational” programs. In August 2007 the FAA awarded ITT Exelis (then ITT) a contract to build the nationwide ground infrastructure for automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B), the first major NextGen acquisition. The latter network of 794 ground radio stations is scheduled for completion in 2013.

The FAA plans to deploy data communications at ATC towers for sending pre-departure and revised pre-departure clearances to pilots by 2016, and in air route traffic control centers for in-flight communications starting in 2019.

Under the DCIS contract, Harris will provide integration and engineering services for the ground-to-ground and air-to-ground segments of a data network connecting ATC facilities with data comm-equipped aircraft. The company leads an industry team that includes American Airlines, Arinc, GE Aviation, Sunhillo and Thales. The ATC data comm network will use one or both of the existing air/ground communications systems available from commercial providers Arinc and Sita. Aircraft must be equipped with Future Air Navigation System (Fans) 1/A+ avionics communicating by VHF Digital Link Mode 2 (VDL-2) datalink.

Harris is also responsible for administering an estimated $80 million “Data Communications Avionic Equipage Initiative” to stimulate industry equipage. The FAA’s original DCIS solicitation in 2011 specified that “no more than 10 percent” of the funding may be used to equip aircraft operating under Part 135 commuter and on-demand operations, with the balance used for commercial aircraft operating under Part 121. At press time, Harris said details of the DCIS contract, including the avionics equipage initiative, were still being worked out with the FAA.

Tower Automation for Airline Data Comm

A separate but related effort that is progressing is the Data Comm Trial Automation Platform (DTAP) program to deploy a prototype tower automation system for airline data comm trials. This spring, Thales was awarded the $9 million DTAP contract via prime contractor ITT Exelis under the FAA’s Systems Engineering 2020 (SE2020) program. Thales has adapted its TopSky automation system–formerly known as Eurocat–to the FAA’s requirements for data communications. The system will be used initially at Memphis International Airport for a trial with FedEx Express scheduled to begin this month. Based on the success of that deployment, trials will be conducted with United Airlines at Newark Liberty Airport, followed by Delta Air Lines at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport.

The DTAP program represents the first operational use of the Thales automation system in the U.S., said Todd Donovan, president and CEO of Thales ATM. “It really is a breakthrough for us,” Donovan told AIN. “It’s a trial, and it is a specific functionality, but it’s an important piece of our strategy.” Thales was the first of two suppliers of ADS-B radios to ITT Exelis–the second supplier is Selex Systems Integration–and serves on two SE2020 contracting teams in its quest to be a major NextGen supplier.