FAA schedules tests for GPS-based air traffic system

ARLINGTON, Va. - Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) leaders plan to conduct a limited but fully functional exercise of their proposed National Airspace System (NAS) architecture in Hawaii and Alaska in 1999.

Jan 1st, 1997

By John Rhea

ARLINGTON, Va. - Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) leaders plan to conduct a limited but fully functional exercise of their proposed National Airspace System (NAS) architecture in Hawaii and Alaska in 1999.

Further, FAA officials are seeking industry ideas to define the baseline architecture by July of this year, says George Donahue, FAA`s associate administrator for research and acquisition. Donahue made his comments at a December Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA) symposium in Arlington, Va.

The exercise, which Donahue says will amount to the equivalent of a military demonstration and validation, will be the most thorough to date in FAA`s quest to merge traditional air traffic control (ATC) equipment with the Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite navigation network. The exercise will apply to all categories of airspace, he notes, and will involve about 2,000 aircraft, including 200 military planes.

The exercise, designated HaLaska 99, still lacks a program manager and a budget of its own, but Donahue says he expects to nail down these details with the 1999 budget.

Hawaii and Alaska are the site of the exercise because they`re relatively isolated from the main flow of U.S. air traffic, yet represent a microcosm of the problems that beset all air traffic regions. Furthermore, the ATC centers in the region handle large portions of the heavy trans-oceanic traffic that revolves around the Pacific Rim.

The mostly general-aviation aircraft operating in the area represent 1 percent of the approximately 200,000 aircraft operating in U.S.-controlled airspace. That number includes about 15,000 military aircraft. Only commercial aircraft, however, will be equipped initially to participate directly in HaLaska 99.

U.S. military leaders already have shown interest in participating in the project and are considering equipping the Air Force F-15 and Navy F/A-18 jet fighters with the necessary onboard avionics, Donahue says. "DOD recognizes that it must equip its aircraft [particularly transport aircraft] to fly in international airspace," Donahue says, "and they [DOD] have the same return on investment position as United Air Lines or anybody else."

FAA officials are aiming at "free flight," in which aircraft operate independently of the traditional ATC system through the use of GPS terminals and other avionics. This has been a sticking point in the past, particularly for general aviation pilots, who have vigorously resisted the costs of required new avionics.

Donahue estimates that NAS avionics would run $7.2 billion to get all aircraft compatible with the proposed system, but FAA officials are seeking new technology to drive down those costs. Symposium participants questioned the FAA officials, however, as to whether the system architecture would be sufficiently open to readily accept new technology.

FAA officials claim that without re-equipping aircraft, the obsolescent ground-based ATC system will continue to eat up operations and maintenance dollars. This would present a net loss to taxpayers, who finance the system through general tax revenues, and to airline passengers, who pay into a FAA trust fund for ATC operations.

In their progression toward a baseline architecture for the NAS, FAA leaders released Version 1.5 last February and Version 2.0 last October. Version 2.5 is due to be released Feb. 14, and FAA`s goal is to wrap up a final version, 3.0, by July.

FAA officials have established six alternatives to fully implement the new architecture from 1998 to 2015. Their favored approach, alternative five, would cost $126.3 billion. This is slightly cheaper than going directly to free flight (alternative one), which would cost $131.9 billion. It would even be slightly cheaper than doing nothing at all or upgrading the ATC system piecemeal to handle expected additional traffic volume, although Donahue did not have figures for those alternatives. All amounts are in constant 1996 dollars.

The big "budget hump" will be the four fiscal years between 1998 and 2001, he adds, and there are such hidden costs as new training manuals for the 17,000 air traffic controllers and an estimated 600,000 pilots - about 50,000 of them commercial pilots.

Industry participation is essential and industry will "have to bring dollars to the table because we can`t do it with government money only," Donahue says. In return, FAA officials want to implement the NAS the way Boeing developed its 777, by concurrently integrating the system design and the software, which he calls "the most costly technology."

Also, consensus would greatly help the industries supplying the equipment. "The radio manufacturers could respond within 18 months if FAA knew what it wanted and if we could certify the software concurrently," he says.

George Burke, FAA`s manager of NAS architecture, spells out FAA`s latest thinking in the critical areas of communications, navigation, and surveillance starting with a move to all-digital, leased communications to provide voice and data link capabilities. Initial operational capability will happen in 2002 with full operational capability expected by 2010. FAA will decommission all its landing navigational aids between 2002 and 2010.

The critical area is surveillance, Burke says. While primary radars will remain for the foreseeable future, the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) system will replace the secondary (beacon) radars. The target dates are 2000 for air-to-air capability and 2008 to 2012 for the ground-based elements. ADS-B is a "radar in a satellite looking down."

FAA`s projected in-house costs from 1998 to 2015 to implement the new architecture are $29.9 billion for facilities and equipment, including automation, communications, data link, support facilities, mission support, navigation, surveillance, and weather services. The big shortfall is in operations and maintenance, which is essentially personnel costs. This is projected to run $77.3 billion over the period.

Annual user costs would never exceed $900 million under the proposed architecture, but there would be peaks of more than $800 million each in fiscal years 2002 and 2008.

In a parallel action announced prior to the ATCA symposium, FAA and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) disclosed that they would team up on an integrated plan for ATC research and technology.

Robert Whitehead, NASA`s associate administrator of aeronautics, says a NASA/FAA integrated product team will form to focus on improvements that could be implemented within the next 10 years.

A key component of this effort will be cockpit situation awareness. Technologies developed for the Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System, better known as TACAS, and ADS-B will be stressed.

Other areas of NASA/FAA concern will include integration of ATC, cockpit, and fleet management; conflict detection and resolution; flight restrictions; and possible changes in the roles of flight crews and air traffic controllers.

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