Exelis bids for Nextgen communications nexus

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ITT Exelis has revealed that it is competing to win a US Federal Aviation Administration contract to build and operate the ground and airborne portions of a next generation air transportation system (Nextgen) digital communications network.

The data communications integrated services (DCIS) contract, set to be awarded in June, is expected to be valued at close to $2 billion for a 17-year effort.

Included with DCIS are provisions for $80 million that the winning bidder is expected to award to airline and some air taxi operators to equip their aircraft with avionics or upgrades to allow for controller-pilot datalink communications (CPDLC) in domestic US airspace, a technology similar to mobile phone texting or email.

DCIS is part and parcel to the rollout of the second of five pillars of the FAA's next generation air transportation system (Nextgen) - air-ground data communications, or "data comm". Already underway is the build-out of the first pillar, the automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) GPS-based surveillance network, set for completion in 2013. Regulations require operators to equip with ADS-B capable avionics by 2020. ITT Exelis is the prime contractor for the ADS-B contract.

Exelis has teamed with numerous partners for DCIS, including Airbus, United Airlines, JetBlue, UPS and avionics maker, Rockwell Collins. Other prime contractor bidders are thought to include Harris Corporation and Lockheed Martin.

CPDLC initially will be limited to a list of canned responses that pilots will select on the communications management unit in the cockpit in response to incoming data, commands or queries from air traffic control. Along with departure clearances, the digital domain will handle the many mundane frequency change requests and confirmations that are an accepted but inefficient way of operating today. The contract requires the winning bidder to use the Arinc and SITA VHF links now used for ACARS to transfer the data to and from aircraft.

By 2030, data comm usage is expected to snowball, replacing 90% of all voice communications for domestic US airline operations, and at some point will also include the automatic transfer of flight plans between the aircraft and the ground, part of the so-called 4d trajectory process that will meter air traffic to precise levels via automation in the aircraft and in air traffic control. Voice will largely be relegated to a backup and emergency function.

In total, the FAA is hoping to equip 1,900 aircraft for CPDLC through the incentive (about 25% of the active airline fleet) in order to have an "acceptable performance" of the technology, an average of about $40,000 per aircraft. The contract winner will be required to harness the operational data from the participating airlines to show the benefits of using the technology, benefits the FAA is certain will spur other operators to equip voluntarily, thereby avoiding the need for a mandate.

A two-year CPDLC pilot programme with American Airlines ended unceremoniously in 2005 due to FAA budget issues and airline industry unwilling to invest in the technology.

In testimony to the US Congress in October, DOT inspector general Calvin Scovel said those doubts persist, in part due to digital communications integration challenges that have delayed the roll out of CPDLC from 2016 to 2018 for the en route segment in the FAA's plans. "Until the FAA resolves these issues, however, users are likely to remain skeptical and reluctant to equip since FAA abandoned the similar [CPDLC] program in 2005," Scovel said.