Next-Generation (Data-based communcations)

Feb. 27, 2012
Data-based communications is the future for aircraft and maintenance technicians

We in aviation technical fields are used to change and do diligence to anticipate the impact they may have on our profession. By many accounts our ranks are dwindling and the intrigue with aviation as a career has waned. The good news: today’s aircraft are state of the art when it comes to electronics and most young people today don’t understand life without electronic stimulation.

Today’s avionics includes high definition video systems, rock ’n digital audio systems, XM Entertainment and broadband connectivity and that doesn’t even touch on “fly by wire” or “automatic thrust control.” Maintenance interaction with digital aircraft systems includes mastering many skills associated with a PC and is now no longer limited to connecting a cable when the aircraft is on the ground. Yes, it is possible to monitor and even diagnose problems when an aircraft is in flight. Even documentation has evolved from paper to electronic media.  

Next Generation in this case does not specifically address passing the wrench to those maintaining aircraft in future years. It does deal with the way we control air traffic.

In the United States, the air traffic control (ATC) network has been in play without significant change since the end of World War II. The plan for the future includes more of an air traffic management concept utilizing airborne rather than ground-based equipment.

NextGen will open skies to continued growth and increased safety while reducing aviation’s environmental impact. These goals will be accomplished through the enhancement of widely used technologies, such as the global positioning system (GPS) and innovations in weather forecasting, data networking, and digital communications. New airport infrastructure and procedures will be coupled with certain decision-making responsibility from the ground to the cockpit.

NextGen will allow more aircraft to safely fly closer together on more direct routes, reducing delays, and providing benefits for the environment and the economy through reductions in fuel consumption and noise. The NextGen Nucleus consists of both systems and procedural transformations including:

ADS-B and more

Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) is FAA's satellite-based successor to radar. ADS-B makes use of GPS technology to determine and share precise aircraft location information, and streams additional flight information to the cockpits of properly equipped aircraft.

Transitioning from a terrestrial based air traffic control system to a celestial concept is a significant undertaking. Transponders as we know them will be true digital communications devices.

ADS-B, which consists of two different services ADS–B Out and ADS–B In, will be replacing radar as the primary surveillance method for controlling aircraft worldwide. In the United States, ADS-B is an integral component of the NextGen National Airspace strategy for upgrading/enhancing aviation infrastructure and operations. The ADS-B system will provide traffic and government generated graphical weather information through Flight Information Service - Broadcast (FIS-B), Traffic Information Service - Broadcast (TIS-B) applications. ADS-B enhances safety by making an aircraft visible, real time, to ATC and to other appropriately equipped ADS-B aircraft with position and velocity data transmitted every second. ADS-B data can be recorded and downloaded for post flight analysis. ADS-B also provides the data infrastructure for inexpensive flight tracking, planning and dispatch.

The system relies on two avionics components — a high-integrity GPS navigation source and a datalink (ADS-B unit). There are several types of certified ADS-B data links, but the most common ones operate at 1,090 MHz, essentially a modified Mode S transponder, or at 978 MHz (USA only). The FAA would like to see aircraft that operate below 18,000 feet use the 978 MHz link since this will help alleviate further congestion of the 1,090 MHz frequency. To obtain ADS-B capability at 1,090 MHz, a new transponder or modified device (if the manufacturer offers an ADS-B upgrade). A certified GPS will also be required.

NextGen Network Enabled Weather (NNEW) is part of an interagency effort to provide users of the National Airspace System with quick, easy and cost-effective access to timely, accurate weather information. Through the sharing of common weather data, NNEW will enhance safety and support collaborative decision making.

Systemwide Information Management (SWIM) is the network structure that will carry NextGen digital information. SWIM will enable cost-effective, real-time data exchange and sharing among users of the National Airspace System.

Collaborative Air Traffic Management Technologies (CATMT) is a NextGen transformational program that provides enhancements to the existing traffic flow management system (TFMS).

National Airspace System Voice System (NVS) will supplant FAA's aging analog voice communication system with state-of-the-art digital technology. NVS will standardize the voice communication infrastructure among FAA facilities, and provide greater flexibility to the air traffic control system.

Atlantic Interoperability Initiative to Reduce Emissions (AIRE) is a cooperative agreement between the United States and the European Commission to promote and harmonize environmental initiatives and procedures in European and North American airspace.

DataComm Data Communications will enable controllers to send digital instructions and clearances to pilots.

The term universal access transceiver (UAT) refers to a data link intended to serve the majority of the general aviation community and is approved for use in all airspace except class A (above 18,000 feet MSL). UAT is intended to support not only ADS-B, but also Flight Information Service - Broadcast (FIS-B), Traffic Information Service - Broadcast (TIS-B), and in the future is capable of communicating supplemental range and position information. Due to the set of standards required for this rule, it is seen as the most effective application for general aviation users. UAT will allow aircraft equipped with "out" broadcast capabilities to be seen by any other aircraft using ADS-B "in" technology as well as by FAA ground stations. Aircraft that are equipped with ADS-B "in" technology will be able to see detailed altitude and vector information from other ADS-B "out" equipped aircraft as well as FIS-B and TIS-B broadcasts. The FIS-B broadcast will allow receiving aircraft to see weather and flight service information including AIRMETs, SIGMETs, METARs, SPECI, National NEXRAD, Regional NEXRAD, D-NOTAMs and PIREPs, Special Use Airspace Status, Terminal Area Forecasts, Amended TAFs, Winds and Temperature Aloft.

These broadcasts serve to provide early adopters of the technology with benefits for more pilots to use the technology before the required 2020 date. Aircraft receiving traffic information through the TIS-B service will see other aircraft in a manner that is similar to how all aircraft will be seen after they have been equipped by 2020. The availability of a non-subscription weather information service, FIS-B, provides general aviation users with a useful alternative to other monthly or annual fee-based services.

The UAT system is specifically designed for ADS-B operation and is the first link to be certified for "radar-like" ATC services in the U.S. Since activated in 2001, it has been providing 5 nm en-route separation in Alaska and is the only ADS-B link standard that is truly bi-directional. Users have access to ground-based aeronautical data and can receive information from local traffic through a service providing reports for enhanced surveillance transponder equipped aircraft and non-ADS-B equipped radar traffic. This is planned to allow users to observe each other directly with high accuracy and minimal delay.

A big part of the good news for aviation maintenance will be the review and revision of need to know information to become a licensed technician able to maintain future aircraft. NextGen will also serve as a spring board to launch us into regulations more in tune with the digital world.

Jim Sparks has been in aviation for 30 years and is a licensed A&P. He is the manager of aviation maintenance for a private company with a fleet including light single engine aircraft, helicopters, and several types of business jets. He can be reached at [email protected].

About the Author

Jim Sparks

Jim Sparks has been maintaining aircraft for almost 40 years with the majority of the time involving Business Aviation activities. Jim’s endeavors have placed him on six of the seven continents contending with numerous situations from routine flight dispatch to critical AOGs. His career includes maintainer, avionics/electrician, educator, tech rep, and director of aircraft maintenance. In addition to other activities he is engaged with ASTM assisting in the global development of criteria defining the Next Tech for NEXTGEN. You can reach him at [email protected].