IN FOCUS: Round two for controller-pilot datalink as FAA contract award looms

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US regulators are set to condone a form of "texting while flying" under the new 17-year, $1 billion-plus Data Communications Integrated Services (DCIS) contract, set to be awarded by the Federal Aviation Administration in June.

Bidders revealed so far include prime contractors ITT Exelis, Harris and Lockheed Martin, with the winner set to operate the ground infrastructure and integration engineering services for air and ground components of the next-generation air transportation system (Nextgen) communications system for the duration of the deal.

The FAA has yet to state the contract's full value, although industry observers believe it will be on a par with the $1.8 billion ADS-B agreement with Exelis.

Included with DCIS are provisions for $80 million that the winning bidder is expected to pay out 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.

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With CPDLC, however, "texting" from the aircraft, at least initially, will be limited to a list of canned responses that pilots select on the communications management unit in the cockpit in response to incoming data, commands or queries from air traffic control, also in text form. 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.

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

FIVE PILLARS

DCIS falls within the second of five pillars supporting Nextgen: air-ground data communications, or "data comm". Work on the build-out of the first pillar, the automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) GPS-based surveillance network, is already under way and is set for completion in 2013. Regulations require operators to equip with ADS-B-capable avionics by 2020.

ADS-B provides precision surveillance data without radar, allowing more efficient flightpaths. Similarly, data comm will boost capacity by transferring the messages that have traditionally connected aircraft to controllers - a barrage of back-and-forth voice transmissions, particularly in the terminal environment - to text. Moving to text messaging from voice will also boost safety by eliminating communications errors such as language barriers.

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CPDLC is a key element of DCIS, but one with some baggage. A two-year pilot programme with American Airlines ended unceremoniously in 2005 because of FAA budget issues and an airline industry unwilling to invest in the technology.

American Airlines equipped 31 aircraft with the CPDLC avionics, testing 12 canned downlinks and 11 canned uplinks (using the ACARS network) between pilots and controllers in Miami airspace. At the time the FAA said it had learned enough from the trial to prepare for what has now become the DCIS contract.

Several years earlier, Eurocontrol successfully tested 28 downlink and 66 uplink messages as part of the Link 2000+ programme in the Maastricht upper airspace sector.

The practice has been in operational use at Maastricht since 2003 in advance of a 2014 mandate for equipage in Europe. The USA and Europe appear to be in lockstep on the technology approach to data comm - to implement CPDLC with VHF Datalink Mode 2 (VDL 2) radios on board communicating via the 31.5kbps digital networks that primarily carry airline operational (or ACARS) messages.

The service is largely provided by data carriers Arinc and SITA on global networks, and the DCIS contract requires the winner to contract with Arinc and SITA for the datalink service.

In the USA, the FAA will roll out data comm in the tower and en route environment first, followed later in the terminal control area, where voice communications are generally more critical and issued at a faster rate. The FAA plans to have initial operational capability at airport towers first, starting in 2015, with 73 airports - those set up for digital pre-departure clearance messages offered by Arinc and SITA to be completed by 2018.

IOC for en route sectors will begin in 2018, with the entire domestic US en route domain completed by 2023. Following en route will be coverage for terminal areas, although the FAA has yet to set the implementation schedule. However, the agency is convinced that users, once shown the benefits, will be convinced the costs are worth the gain.

SUBMISSIONS

"The FAA believes all parties involved will benefit from the contractor being required to establish arrangements with one or more substantial aircraft operators (Part 121 or Part 135) and in some cases airframe manufacturers that operate test aircraft," the agency states in the request for proposal. The FAA closed the bid window in October and is evaluating submissions.

For Exelis, partners include Airbus, United Airlines, JetBlue, UPS and avionics maker Rockwell Collins. In 2009, the FAA signed a two-year $12 million contract with Rockwell Collins and competitor Honeywell to develop prototype avionics hardware and software for data comm, along with providing support to the FAA for demonstrations.

Ed Sayadian, president of air traffic management at Exelis, says the basic building blocks from an avionics standpoint are the VDL Mode 2 digital radios, a communications management unit, and either a Future Air Navigation System (FANS) 1/A+ or Aeronautical Telecommunications Network (ATN) digital communications system, equipment generally installed on most airliners at the factory today. CPDLC will go live first, with FANS aircraft, and network upgrades will follow to allow for ATN-equipped aircraft to use the service. Later in the contract window, the FAA will introduce the capability to automatically update and transmit flightplan data to and from the aircraft's FMS, a key feature of 4D navigation for Nextgen.

To receive upgrade funds, older aircraft will be required to have at least a 10-year operational life remaining. "We identified more than 20 different permutations of equipment out there requiring some types of upgrades," says Sayadian. He adds that upgrades could range from "minor" software tweaks in the $30,000 range to major radio replacements at $500,000 in price. Airlines obtaining the incentives will ultimately decide which aircraft to upgrade, although Sayadian says the emphasis is likely to be on fleet uniformity to decrease training costs.

FUNDING PROFILE

The DCIS proposal requires that 90% of the $80 million in equipage funding goes to airline aircraft (Part 121), with air taxi aircraft (Part 135) eligible for 10%. The funding profile changes depending on the year, and varies from $4 million in the first year (2013) to $21.6 million in 2015 and $8 million in 2018, the final year of the incentive programme. Not covered are FMS purchases or FMS replacements; upgraded cockpit voice recorders that meet a mandate for recording digital messaging; costs for maintenance of the equipment or training on how to use it; and aircraft out-of-service time during the retrofit. The FAA will require that any domestic airline has the opportunity to participate in the programme.

Through the incentive, the FAA hopes to equip 1,900 aircraft (about 25% of the active airline fleet) for data comm to have an "acceptable performance" of the technology, an average cost 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.

The US Department of Transportation, however, is not so sure. In testimony to the US Congress in October, DoT inspector general Calvin Scovel said challenges integrating data comm with the FAA's various air traffic control automation systems had already delayed the roll-out of data comm from 2016 to 2018 for the en route segment. "Until the FAA resolves these issues, however, users are likely to remain skeptical and reluctant to equip since the FAA abandoned the similar [CPDLC] programme in 2005," Scovel added.