Upgrading avionics and air traffic management in tandem takes time and patience

SAN DIEGO, 1 June 2009. Matching future aircraft avionics upgrades to planned improvements in commercial aviation air traffic management (ATM) systems and air traffic control (ATC) equipment can be a much tougher problem than it sounds, says a commercial aviation expert.

SAN DIEGO, 1 June 2009. Matching future aircraft avionics upgrades to planned improvements in commercial aviation air traffic management (ATM) systems and air traffic control (ATC) equipment can be a much tougher problem than it sounds, says a commercial aviation expert.

"This is the same ATM system that was in place when I got a commercial aircraft rating in 1975," says Tim Tuttle, program manager and associate technical fellow in product development at Boeing Commercial Airplanes in Long Beach, Calif. "It's still a pretty rudimentary system in many cases."

Commercial aircraft avionics and capabilities for improving aircraft navigation are changing quickly, and often much faster than government's ability to upgrade ATM and ATC systems.

"We are probably hitting the saturation level of the ATM. We hit it today when there's weather," Tuttle pointed out today in a keynote address to the Avionics USA conference and trade show in San Diego, sponsored by the PennWell Aerospace and Defense Media Group. "There's a lot of reasons for fixing it, and a lot of things that make it hard to do."

Commercial aircraft manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus can introduce new generations of commercial aircraft about once every 10 years, while aircraft and avionics makers retrofit aircraft avionics and related systems every three to eight years, Tuttle explains.

Meanwhile, it takes 15 to 28 years for government and industry to agree on and implement changes in the ATM and ATC systems. "The devil is in the details here, but it isn't a technology problem," Tuttle says.

Key to coordinating ATC and commercial aircraft improvements is to get all interested parties on the same page, Tuttle says. These interested parties, or "stake holders," as he calls them, include organizations like national and international aviation organizations, commercial airlines, and commercial aircraft manufacturers.

With this in mind, ATM and ATC changes often do not come quickly. Once the interested parties can agree on how to move forward, Tuttle says making regional improvements to ATM systems can spell the difference between success or failure.

Appreciating economics can help these interested parties come together. "Airplanes change fast or slow based on economics. Make it really valuable to an airline operator, and he will change," Tuttle says.

Meanwhile, making changes one part at a time is important. "Making large changes to the entire ATM system is just too complicated, to be quite honest," Tuttle told attendees. "Regional implementations are key. It can help you build to a common perspective."

At the same time, all parties involved have to appreciate the role of government regulators like the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in improving ATM and avionics systems.

"We would love to upgrade our LRUs [line-replaceable units] on a monthly basis, but it is tremendously expensive," Tuttle says."Airplanes are hugely regulated -- and are held to a very high standard."

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