Air traffic control modernization kicks into high gear

Planned upgrades for ATC systems in the U.S. and throughout the world provide vigorous new opportunities for COTS insertion and dual-use technology development

Aug 1st, 1997
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Planned upgrades for ATC systems in the U.S. and throughout the world provide vigorous new opportunities for COTS insertion and dual-use technology development

By J.R. Wilson

Estimates place the global market for air traffic control (ATC) systems and modernization through the middle of the next decade at $100 billion, ranging from a near-complete replacement of the current ATC system in the United States to the installation of new systems in China and Russia where few or none previously existed.

Continuing problems in recent months with vital services and equipment at major ATC centers in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington have added even more impetus to move the U.S. programs into high gear. And it is this massive investment in new technologies and economies of scale that will make it easier and less costly for other programs around the world to advance.

The U.S. commitment to more cost-efficient procurement already has borne fruit, says aviation chief Barry L. Valentine. "The whole process of technological innovation is speeding up," says Valentine, acting administrator of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in Washington. "We will soon see the next phase in the evolution of air traffic management, and the integration of several existing systems - GPS, digital datalink, conflict probe, and safety alert - culminating in the transition to free flight." FAA officials are planning a test of this new technology in Hawaii and Alaska, starting in 1999, he says.

White House officials are asking the FAA to speed up the planned switch to satellite-based aircraft tracking by seven years to 2005, Valentine says. FAA leaders say they will report back to the president this fall.

In the past year, FAA officials report delivering some 5,600 hardware and software upgrades to their facilities nationwide, from minor additions to major enhancements. The latter included Doppler radar for detecting windshear, a new voice switching and control system now in place in all 21 of the FAA`s en-route centers. The voice switching system eliminates garbled words, static, and fading in communications between pilots and controllers. New detection equipment also has been installed at airports that enables controllers to see everything moving on aprons, taxiways, and runways at any time and in any weather.

Equipment upgrades

FAA officials supervised replacement of the air traffic control display computer in Chicago last November. Similar equipment began operating at four other busy centers this spring "10 months ahead of schedule and $3.1 million under budget," Valentine says. These are interim systems, he cautions, and are designed to fill in until a permanent replacement comes on line at all air traffic control centers. The first of the permanent computers went in at Seattle Center last fall - also 10 months ahead of schedule, he says.

The new equipment at Seattle Center is the first installation of the Display System Replacement (DSR) program. FAA officials also have accepted DSR upgrades at the ATC Training Academy in Oklahoma City and at the William J. Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City, N.J. Officials report they are set to accept the system at Seattle in February 1998 and to complete all installations by June 2000.

DSR will replace two current display systems - the CDC (computer display complex) at 15 locations, and DCCR (display channel complex rehost) at five other en-route centers. A third system scheduled for replacement - MicroEARTS (microprocessor en route automated radar tracking system) - is in use in Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and at two U.S. Defense Department sites. MicroEARTS integrates signals from as many as 50 radars and enables the controllers to track as many as 2,200 planes simultaneously.

Plans to upgrade equipment in the Hawaii approach-control center eventually will be to put a Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS) there, explains Bennie Sanford, chief engineer for the FAA Air Traffic Systems Development Organization. "We believe the STARS system will meet the needs of all of the MicroEARTS facilities, although we are still investigating the situation at Anchorage."

In many respects, DSR is similar to STARS. It is designed around the same class of Sony displays and a Raytheon display controller, but with IBM Unix workstations rather than the STARS Sun Solaris workstations. The DSR prime contractor is Lockheed Martin of Bethesda, Md., following the company`s acquisition of the original prime, IBM Federal Systems.

The interim systems to which Valentine refers are part of the Display Channel Complex Rehost (DCCR) and are installed at en-route traffic control centers at New York, Cleveland, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Washington. FAA officials say they opted to install the interim DCCR systems at those five centers because of a combination of high traffic and equipment need.

The rise of STARS

The billion-dollar STARS contract, awarded to Raytheon in mid-1996, is the largest single overhaul on the FAA upgrade schedule. STARS will replace all of the elements of the existing 30-year-old Automated Radar Terminal Systems (ARTS IIa, ARTS IIIa and ARTS IIIe) at 331 domestic and international FAA and Defense Department terminal radar approach control (TRACON) areas through the next 10 years. The design calls for a single scalable system that will meet the needs of small TRACONs, such as Richmond, Va., up to massive systems such as the one controlling air traffic into Southern California.

As with DSR, all STARS hardware is commercial off the shelf (COTS), running a 50/50 combination of previously developed software and new software built on top of a COTS Unix operating system.

STARS also is reported to be on schedule and on budget, with the first system to go into Boston`s Logan International Airport in December 1998. The first DOD site at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is scheduled soon afterward, although funding restraints have forced the bulk of the DOD system installations to shift toward the end of the FAA schedule.

STARS "is the largest award, to date, under the new acquisition system we put in place in April 1996," Valentine says. "With the reforms granted to us by Congress, we were able to rewrite our rules and redefine the way we do business - with both our contractors and our own people. It took us less than six months to award the contract. Under the old set of regulations, it would have taken us three times as long."

Another upgrade program, the Tower Computer Control Complex (TCCC), has not fared so well. A joint effort with the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., the TCCC project "was to integrate a lot of existing displays into one automation system," Sanford explains. FAA officials terminated the project in April 1997 because they did not have the money in their budget necessary to continue it. Still, an evaluation is continuing of system elements used at Atlanta`s Hartsfield International Airport during the 1996 Summer Olympics.

FAA leaders are still working to come up with an overall national airspace architecture, Sanford says. Tower surveillance displays, which are part of STARS, represent a less complex - and less costly - system than TCCC to display non-STARS information in the tower, he says.

Global cooperation

FAA leaders also are working with their counterparts in Europe and elsewhere to ensure future compatibility among global air traffic management (ATM) upgrade efforts.

"There are a number of activities between the FAA and Europe, both in system development, controller interface studies, R&D, as well as regulatory issues," Sanford says. "The ultimate goal is to have a seamless ATC, whether you`re in U.S., European, or oceanic airspace ... to make sure the same equipment is usable in U.S. airspace and around the world."

Systems designers are developing all of the European projects in concert with Eurocontrol`s Convergence and Implementation Program (CIP).

Eurocontrol (the European Organization for the Safety of Air Navigation) began operating in 1960 with participation from Belgium, West Germany, France, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, and the United Kingdom to create a common European ATC environment. Today the organization boasts 26 member states: Germany, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Portugal, Greece, Turkey, Malta, Cyprus, Hungary, Switzerland, Austria, Norway, Denmark, Slovenia, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Italy, Romania, the Slovak Republic, Spain, Croatia, and Bulgaria. Monaco also has been accepted for membership.

Most of the remaining members of the European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC) have applied. They include Estonia, Poland, Finland, Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Russia, Iceland, Albania, Andorra, Bosnia, Faroe Islands, Gibraltar, Liechtenstein, Macedonia, San Marino, Vatican City State, and Yugoslavia.

Eurocontrol`s major objectives are to:

- manage the implementation of the European Air Traffic Control Harmonization and Integration Program for ECAC, to operate a single European Air Traffic Flow Management Unit to optimize European airspace and prevent air traffic congestion;

- implement short- and medium-term action to improve the coordination of ATC systems throughout Europe; and

- carry out research and development work aimed at increasing ATC capacity in Europe.

As part of that, the proposed European Air Traffic Management System (EATMS) is intended to accommodate an anticipated doubling of European civil air traffic by 2015 and provide more flexible and cost-effective ATM services than airlines and governments enjoy today. Meeting these two objectives, however, will not be easy. It will require the same kind of dramatically improved spacing of aircraft en route, timing of arrivals and departures and fuel- and time-efficient routing that are part and parcel of the U.S. effort, because much of Europe`s airspace and its airports already are heavily congested.

EATMS plans look at a range of options from a "managed" ATM environment consisting of structured traffic, greater traffic predictability, longer planning cycles, and extensive automated support, to a "free flight" system consisting primarily of free routings and, in the longer term, autonomous aircraft separation. European officials expect EATMS ultimately will incorporate both of those and several other options to increase productivity and air traffic capacity in the most heavily traveled regions.

Vital to the success of this effort is unity - something Europe has been alternately striving toward and fighting against for centuries. The plan is to base airspace divisions solely on ATM needs rather than on considerations of national boundaries, while maintaining national sovereignty.

"The concept involves fundamental changes to current roles both in the air and on the ground; a distribution of responsibilities for separation assurance between the air and ground ATM elements according to aircraft capabilities and the services provided; greater use of computer support tools to cope with increased levels of service and keep ATC and cockpit workload within acceptable levels, and a more dynamic and flexible management of airspace," according to EATMS documents.

While such a program will be costly, the European Commission Directorate General for Transport estimates the current level of congestion, inefficiency, and lack of safety is costing the European economy more than $4 billion a year now, with predictions that figure will soar to $10 billion in 2000.

New technologies

Research on new ATM services and the communication, navigation, and surveillance technologies necessary to meet these goals will fall under a coordinated framework called ECARDA, short for European Coherent Approach for Research in ATM. ECARDA leaders also seek to incorporate evolving technologies with potential ATM use involving agencies such as Eurocontrol, the European Space Agency (ESA), and ECAC.

Another program of significance to global air traffic modernization is the Future Air Navigation System (FANS) and the implementation of a Communications/Navigation/Surveillance (CNS) ATM system.

FANS is essentially an oceanic application of datalinks and Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers to automate how aircraft pilots report their positions as they fly across the oceans. Since there are few radar systems in ocean areas, oceanic ATC consists primarily of hourly positional updates transmitted by voice over shortwave radio. This can be automated using GPS equipment in the aircraft and satellite communications links.

The FANS approach will allow the safe reduction of separation between aircraft to boost efficiency, notes the FAA`s Sanford. "FANS capability is there today in the Pacific, but it is up to the airlines that want to take advantage of that to do so," he says. "It is primarily a benefits-driven policy rather than a mandated equipment investment. The equipage allows more favorable routes and altitudes to the users, who will buy the equipment when they see the bottom-line advantage."

While an important element of any CNS/ATM system will be the Pentagon- controlled GPS constellation of satellites, a wary Europe seeks to use the Russian GLONASS satellite system, pending creation of a global, civilian-controlled next generation Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS-2). GLONASS, like its GPS cousin, however, is also subject to military control, and its performance is suspect.

Using GPS and GLONASS together for precise positioning is problematic because the two systems use their own time reference and spatial coordinate systems. GPS, for example, specifies the positions of its satellites in an Earth-centered, Earth-fixed Cartesian coordinate frame WGS 84; GLONASS, meanwhile, employed SGS 85 until 1993, but then switched to PZ-90 (also referred to as PE-90).

Resolving the time scale issue can be as simple (albeit with some sacrifice in precision) as estimating the instantaneous bias between the two scales.

But the spatial coordinates problem is considerably more complex. "The current difficulty in estimating a transformation between the two coordinate frames is largely due to the dearth of GLONASS receivers. A transformation has been estimated using an approach which sidesteps this difficulty," according to an FAA-sponsored study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory entitled Integrated Use of GPS and GLONASS: Transformation Between WGS 84 and PZ-90.

Missed requirements

At present, neither GPS nor GLONASS meet requirements established by the International Civil Aviation Organization in Montreal. As military systems are made available to civil use, GPS and GLONASS are subject to built-in errors to prevent an enemy from using the satellites for precise navigation and weapons targeting.

While ways around this problem have been developed, such as the Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS), Local Area Differential GNSS and Receiver Autonomous Integrity Monitoring, they, too, are controlled by the U.S. and Russia and thus leave other nations feeling uneasy about relying on them for their entire civil and military air control systems.

Over Europe and the Atlantic, a short-term solution is the European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service (EGNOS), while Japan`s Multifunction Transport Satellite Augmentation System seeks to provide a similar service across the Pacific and parts of Asia.

EGNOS is the ESA contribution to the European Satellite Navigation (ESN) Action Program, a joint five-year $165 million effort by the European Commission, ESA and EUROCONTROL, ending in 2000. ESN`s main objective is to develop a GPS/GLONASS-based civil Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS-1) until a second-generation, fully international and civil-controlled GNSS-2 can be deployed around 2005.

During the first phase (GNSS-1), EGNOS will provide additional Inmarsat III-type geostationary satellites that will relay high-precision position information to aircraft, ships, or road vehicles. Part of the increased accuracy will come from the additional EGNOS satellites available to each receiver. Several small Earth stations pinpoint those satellite positions to corroborate and enhance data from satellites. The resulting navigation computations will be relayed to the EGNOS satellites from two Earth stations, then transmitted to the users.

Additional Earth stations will be deployed in a second phase to provide range data not only to the EGNOS satellites, but also to all visible GPS and GLONASS satellites, thus improving precision. These stations, separated by no more than 480 miles, also would provide the necessary spatial sampling to construct a constant regional profile of the ionosphere to compensate for atmospheric disturbances that would affect precise positioning.

Automated landing

Also during this time, Europe will develop and test replacements for the Instrument Landing System. In early 2000, plans call for authorization of a Wide Area Differential (WAD)-improved navigation satellite system for precision landings as a complementary method for Category I approaches that require positioning accuracy to within 15 meters horizontally and 7 meters vertically.

Following a trial period ending sometime between 2005 and 2008, the new system would become the sole support for Category I landings. However, WAD is not considered accurate enough for Category II and III precision approaches, which would require localized differential GPS techniques involving land-based beacons.

Plans call for the development of GNSS-2 between 2005 and 2020, building on the GNSS-1 experience but with marked technological improvements in reliability, precision, and availability.

"GNSS-2 must meet the requirements of all transport systems irrespective of their nature," says ESA Director Renè Collette. "Bigger transmission capabilities and complementary communications will further extend the scope for navigation satellite systems. Some examples of areas in which they will be deployed are traffic reports and forecasts, fleet management systems, and automatic control of air traffic management reliability."

Even the degraded positioning data provided by GPS and GLONASS are sufficient for en-route, terminal, and non-precision approaches, and are the primary basis for another new ATM concept - "free flight."

Free flight actually begins before an aircraft leaves the gate and continues until it reaches its destination. Using positioning data provided to the ATM system, which will perform separation monitoring and prediction functions, each aircraft will use on-board performance management systems and enhanced cockpit situational awareness to enable the pilot to take over some of the duties that ground-based controllers perform today.

Ground-based controllers will impose short-term restrictions only when two or more aircraft compete for the same airspace or airport runway. Aircraft will normally maneuver unrestricted. On-board systems will enhance separation assurance.

For the U.S., a two-year program called Flight 2000 to evaluate free flight is set to begin in Alaska and Hawaii in 1999 to examine how existing technologies can allow pilots to fly whatever routes and altitudes are best for existing weather and traffic conditions, thus allowing fuel and time savings.

Sanford says FAA leaders are taking the same approach to free flight as they are to FANS - allowing the costs, not government decree, to drive airlines toward its adoption. Flight 2000 will involve about 600 commercial and general-aviation aircraft in Hawaii airspace and 1,400 commercial aircraft in Alaska, each equipped with compatible on-board avionics. Approximately 100 military aircraft in the two flight zones also will be suitably equipped for participation.

"Based on those results, we`ll move toward domestic implementation of those capabilities," Sanford says.

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The Raytheon ASR-23SS Series L-band primary surveillance radar is part of several air traffic control upgrades worldwide. This radar uses new high-power RF transistor technology and digital array signal processors in an open-systems VME bus environment.

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The Harris VDR-2125 VHF Multimode Transmitter is a microprocessor-controlled analog- and digital-compatible radio system that will increase data link capabilities in ground-to-air communications by expanding frequency bandwidth and improving voice quality.

Federal budget crunch puts the pinch on FAA plans

Money has, in fact, been a primary factor in all FAA upgrade efforts and will continue to play a direct role in how these programs develop in the future. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater recently termed FAA funding to be one of the most urgent issues facing the government.

Paying for the FAA`s capital investment programs and much of its operations are aviation excise taxes paid into the Airport and Airway Trust Fund. For 1997, for example, about 60 percent of the FAA`s $8.6 billion budget comes from the trust fund, the rest from the general treasury. FAA officials estimate the trust lost more than $4.5 billion between the time the excise tax was allowed to lapse last year and a congressional vote reinstating the tax this year.

"A few years ago, none of us would ever have thought it possible that the trust fund reserves would be depleted," says Barry L. Valentine, acting FAA administrator. "But that is exactly what would have happened this summer if the taxes had not been reinstated. Our capital investment programs would have borne most of the brunt and would have been the first to suffer. We must find a new way to finance our programs - one that isn`t subject to the uncertainties of the federal budget process."

One of the FAA`s most significant cost- and time-cutting reforms was the dropping last year of government specifications in favor of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components selected by the contractors and thus easily upgradable as new technology evolves. All of the new FAA upgrade initiatives, as well as those being pursued in other nations, are heavily - if not fully - COTS-based.

Next to safety, money also is the second-leading stimulus to worldwide air traffic control modernization. New equipment and techniques will significantly increase airspace efficiency, and save commercial airlines billions of dollars in operating costs. Still, faster and more efficient movement of people and goods by air also will increase efficiency in thousands of other businesses.

"One of the most interesting findings of our study was the extent of downstream benefits that modern efficient air transportation systems have on a nation`s well-being," says Michael J. Dyment, the lead author of a 1995 study of ATC modernization by the management and technology consulting firm of Booz Allen & Hamilton. "Traditionally, governments have viewed modernizing air traffic control as a cost. They should instead look at it as an investment that will pay strong returns in the areas of commerce and economic development."

For example, Dyment says, it is possible to generate a return of as much as 40 percent per annum on an ATC infrastructure investment in most developed countries, and the benefit to less-developed countries is likely to be even better. "This compares with an average rate of return of 17 percent on overall infrastructure investments funded by the World Bank," he says. - J.R.W.

Military contractors look to ATC for new opportunities

Global efforts to modernize air traffic management (ATM) have led to a growing interest in the field by aerospace companies, many of whose leaders are looking for new revenue sources to supplement declining military spending.

The project to build the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS), for example, went to Raytheon Co. of Lexington, Mass., which already was a major player in the field before its recent acquisitions of Hughes Aircraft, E-Systems, and Chrysler`s Defense Electronics division, all of which were involved in ATM or ATM-related work.

Similarly, Lockheed Martin officials moved heavily into ATM after they merged with Martin Marietta and subsequent acquisition of Loral, which previously acquired the IBM Federal Systems ATM unit. IBM was a primary ATC software provider to the FAA, and had teamed with Harris to compete for STARS.

Northrop Grumman also joined the field by acquiring the Westinghouse`s Defense & Electronics Systems division, which had a long record of work with the FAA. And Boeing leaders made their first venture into ATM by teaming with BDM (already a major system provider) as the third STARS competitor.

In Europe, where American companies have had considerable success in winning ATM contracts, changes also are on the way.

Finmeccanica`s Alenia division in Italy has competed strongly with American firms on the international civil ATM market and may be looking to move into military projects with its recent collaborative discussions with GEC.

Leaders of Siemens of Germany, meanwhile, plan to split off their civil ATM unit (primarily Siemens Plessey Systems in the U.K.) to merge it into a new joint venture with Thomson-CSF, which also will bring together its recent U.S. acquisitions - ATM management and engineering firm Cardion and ground-based navigation aids manufacturer Wilcox. Further integration of European ATM efforts may come with the planned sale of Thomson itself.

But the U.S. giants, boosted by a strong domestic market, have captured much of the recent European activity, such as the U.K.`s National Air Traffic Services new Swanwick center, where Lockheed Martin has a $200 million-plus software contract. Lockheed Martin also will be prime (teamed with Siemens Plessey, Electronic Data Systems and Frequentis as Sky Solutions) for the Scottish Air Traffic Control Center at Prestwick.

Raytheon also has several European contracts, including new German centers at Schiphol, Langen, and Munich, while Alenia officials are working on a new center for Rome. Major programs also are scheduled in Poland, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania, Estonia, Lithuania, and the Slovak Republic. - J.R.W.

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The Display System Replacement program will replace two current display systems - the computer display complex at 15 locations, and display channel complex rehost at five en-route centers. The FAA accepted the system, which was developed at Lockheed Martin, in March 1997.

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