Will our generation realize NextGen benefits? In the United States, the air traffic control (ATC) system has been – and still is – based on 1940s-era radar technology, which means it runs slowly and inefficiently by twenty-first-century standards. In an effort to address this, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), under the U.S. Department of Transportation, is implementing the Next Generation Air Transportation System – or NextGen for short – which is the new National Airspace System (NAS) designed to transform ATC in the U.S. In fact, the research and planning portion of NextGen began as far back as 2003.
Simply stated: NextGen is a modernization initiative that is moving U.S. aviation away from a radar-based system with radio communications to a satellite-based system, including global-positioning satellites. By design, this should allow ATC to handle three times the volume of air traffic. The phased implementation began in 2012 and will continue until 2025 at least.
The global positioning system (GPS) will take a leading role in ATC moving forward by facilitating shorter routes, less air time, reduced fuel burn, and fewer delays, with increased capacity and smoother traffic flow. Eventually, the system will yield greater safety margins that will permit aircraft to fly closer to one another, take more direct routes and avoid scenarios like aircraft stacking at airports while waiting to land.
The NextGen initiative consists of four main components:
1. Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B): ADS-B is a satellite-based surveillance system that will replace the outdated radar-based system currently in operation. ADS-B Out allows aircraft to broadcast data regarding location, airspeed and other information to a network of ground stations, which then relays that data to air traffic control and other aircraft nearby. The system uses GPS technology. The FAA has mandated that all aircraft operating in the U.S. above 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) must be equipped with ADS-B Out equipment by 2020. ADS-B In requires receiving equipment, including an antenna that will allow aircraft and ground facilities to receive data from aircraft operating nearby. The 2020 mandate for aircraft compliance, however, does not apply to ADS-B In.
2. Next Generation Data Communications (Data Comm): Data Comm is a whole new method by which air traffic controllers and pilots will exchange in-flight information via air-to-ground datalink and is intended to supplement traditional voice communications. It will use digital text-based messages and leverage equipment that is already installed in most aircraft. Initially, the system will focus on flight instructions, like flight departure clearance information, for instance, communicated from the airport tower directly to the flight deck but ultimately will include other forms of instruction, requests, and reports. The FAA plans to have Data Comm services fully operational in 56 U.S. airports by the end of 2016.
3. Next Generation Network-Enabled Weather (NNEW): NNEW is a four-dimensional (4-D) weather model that incorporates all points, lateral, vertical, and time dimensions – also known as the 4-D Weather (Wx) Data Cube. The system will be designed to provide fast, reliable access to aviation weather, which in turn will improve efficiency and safety while increasing capacity. The 4-D Wx Data Cube will include a virtual weather network developed and maintained by the FAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), along with commercial weather data providers. All weather-related data will be affixed to coordinate systems as designated units. The system should greatly reduce the need for interpretation and should better enable air transportation decision-making.
4. NAS Voice System (NVS): NVS will be a new voice communications system with flexible networking capabilities. It is a central enabling program for NextGen as it will revolutionize the current voice switch bases that are plagued with supportability issues at present. Seventeen separate switches are currently used in the National Airspace System, which uses a geographic infrastructure to manage it. These switches are static and are limited in their ability to manage varying workloads. Also, many are nearly obsolete or altogether obsolete. NVS will effectively manage the allocation of air traffic controllers to step into overloaded situations without requiring the physical relocation of ATC staff, dynamically reconfiguring the airspace based on the actual workload.
To plan and develop the new modernization components of NextGen, the FAA first consulted with a NextGen Advisory Committee, who then consulted with the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA) Task Force to map out next steps. The task force is comprised of government entities, the FAA, Department of Defense and NASA as well as industry players: Air Line Pilots Association, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, Boeing, GARMIN, Honeywell, Rockwell Collins, Stanford University, Lockheed Martin, National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), and several others.
I will go on to explore some of the challenges to date with the implementation process and some early feedback that the FAA has received regarding their performance-based navigation procedures in major U.S. metroplexes in a future blogpost.