Digital Decisions

Bid contenders for the huge Data Communications Integrated Services (DCIS) programme will know in June whether they will play a part in revolutionising the way messages are sent through the US National Airspace System.

DCIS – the second major step in constructing NextGen – will enable real-time communication between controllers and flight crews through the use of modern digital data transmissions instead of outdated analogue voice technology, allowing aircraft to fly safer, more efficient routes and ease congestion in major metropolitan areas nationwide.

It has been correctly identified as one of the ‘foundational’ NextGen programmes, as it not only improves controller productivity by automating the delivery of routine clearances but also moves the FAA towards its ultimate vision of trajectory-based operation.

Work on the first foundational step – the $1.8 billion automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) GPS-based surveillance network – is already under way and will be completed next year. Some say the contract value of DCIS is on a par with that programme, others put the figure higher at $3 billion.

What is for sure is that it will certainly be one of the most complex programmes the agency has ever undertaken, networking a wide range of ATC platforms through to avionics in the cockpit. The DCIS contract will provide ground-to-ground and air-to-ground segments of the data communications system, with special attention paid to the interoperability of the data communications services and avionics.

And it has already had it detractors. Calvin Scovel, the US Department of Transportation inspector general, stated in testimony to the US House in October that ‘developing and implementing data comm will be a complex, high-risk effort, and industry officials have expressed scepticism about the FAA’s ability to deliver the programme”. That was based on known difficulties with integrating data comm with the FAA’s various air traffic control automation systems which had already delayed its roll-out from 2016 to 2018 for the en route segment.

Consultation

Still, the industrial bidders are confident that the DCIS acquisition effort has been well thought out since the FAA has over the last couple of year pursued a highly effective consultative approach, endeavouring to come up with a viable, executable programme through close contact with the contractor community.

The contract is structured so that data comm will initially be rolled out in the tower and en route environment between 2018 and 2022 followed by the more challenging terminal control area at some future date, as yet unscheduled.

Initial operational capability is expected to debut in 2015 at five test sites with 73 airports expected to be ready to handle digital pre-departure clearance messages by 2018.

The initial set of DataComm services includes revised departure clearances, weather reroutes, tailored arrival flight paths, direct-to-fix and crossing restrictions.

Improving the departure clearance process will be one of the major benefits of the programme and will allow controllers to quickly revise multiple clearances to reroute aircraft during severe weather. Pilots will have a standard list of responses to select on a communications management unit in the cockpit to answer incoming data, commands or queries from air traffic control that will similarly be dispatched in text form.

To support the testing, the DCIS contractor will be required to provide a test tower service at the FAA William J. Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

The contract also requires the DCIS contractor to use one or both of the current commercial services providers of air-to-ground network service – ARINC or SITA – to provide a VDL-2 service accommodating ACARS messages. The providers will eventually become subcontractors for the programme once the contract is awarded.

Cost Benefit

While the FAA hopes that by the time it comes to awarding the contract for extending coverage to terminal areas, the cost benefit analysis will have been made and voluntary equipage will have become non-contentious, it is building into the initial contract an $80 million avionics equipage fund to equip a minimum 1,900 aircraft – a quarter of the active fleet.

Bids were received in October by three teams: Harris Corporation, Lockheed Martin and ITT Exelis team and each of the prime contractors has applauded the provision calling it innovative and a good way to reach the much sought after tipping point through demonstrating benefits in a trial environment.

Ninety per cent of that $80 million is earmarked for commercial airlines while air taxi aircraft will be eligible for the remaining 10 per cent. The average cost of equipping aircraft with the necessary avionics to attain an ‘acceptable’ technology performance is expected to be around $40,000 per aircraft. Furthermore, to receive upgrade funds, aircraft will be required to have at least a 10-year operational life remaining.

Ed Sayadian, president of air traffic management at ITT Exelis says he hopes future NextGen contracts will include this type of provision and that it was the result of some innovative, far sighted thinking by the FAA that had made a serious commitment to consult with the airline community.

He says his team’s calculations put the cost at anywhere between $30,000 to $500,000 depending on what aircraft type an airline chooses to upgrade. “If you were to take the aircraft that would likely to be candidates for equipment we would be looking at about covering roughly 50 per cent of the cost,” says Sayadian who believes an airline will likely base its decision based on fleet uniformity to decrease training costs.

Sayadian says the winning of the FAA $1.8 billion ADS-B contract gave the business a unique insight into the development of complex nationwide programmes and that it will be applying a similar programme management approach if successful on this contract.

Another aerospace heavyweight Lockheed Martin is also bidding for the DCIS contract. It too will be seeking to leverage its experience as the prime contractor for the FAA’s oceanic ATC system, which is the only system in the US that currently uses controller-pilot data links.

Diane Desua is director of NextGen strategies at Lockheed Martin. She believes that one important feature of the contract will be to continue the FAA’s ongoing mission to tout DCIS benefits, complementing the work of both the Data Comm Implementation Team which is co-chaired by Boeing and US airlines as well as a special RTCA data comm committee.

“Part of this job under contract is an outreach programme. At this point I would say there are mixed signals coming from the airlines. It really depends on how far they are currently equipped,” says Desua.

The  Contenders

The Data Communications Integrated Services (DCIS) contract – one of the largest NextGen contracts so far awarded sees most aerospace industry heavyweights vying to operate the FAA’s data comm network for up to 17 years. The winning bidder will also need to supply integration and engineering support during rollout.

Three teams – led by Harris Corporation, ITT Exelis and Lockheed Martin – have submitted DCIS bids

  • Team Harris Corporation: Full details yet to be released. Arinc, GE Aviation, Thales, an undisclosed major airline
  • Team Lockheed Martin: Boeing, Level 3 and Telcordia, an undisclosed major airline
  • Team ITT Exelis: United Airlines, JetBlue Airways and UPS, Rockwell Collins Airbus, Raytheon, General Dynamics, Aerospace Engineering, AT&T, Airtel, Northrop Grumman, CSC, Saab Sensis, Nav Canada and Nexa Capital Partners.

 How Will DCIS Work?

The DCIS service will initially use the Future Air Navigation System 1/A (FANS 1/A) standard via VHF Digital Link Mode 2, since FANS 1/A is already widely used for airline operations and for oceanic data communications.

While FANS 1/A messages can be uploaded to the FMS, this standard cannot handle the more-complex messages needed for advanced procedures such as 4-D trajectories.

A standard known as Aeronautical Telecommunication Network (ATN) Baseline 2 is being developed, and this will allow the more complex messages to be uploaded to the FMS.

A decision over whether data comm will support ATN Baseline 1 in addition to Baseline 2 has yet to be made. Baseline 1 is regarded as an interim solution, and is the standard used in Europe’s Link 2000+ data link programme. Boeing and Airbus are understood to favour the development of Baseline 2.

The FAA plans to introduce the capability to automatically update and transmit flightplan data to and from the aircraft’s FMS.

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This entry was posted in Communications, Features, NextGen.

2 Responses to Digital Decisions

  1. Pingback: Digital Decisions

  2. Bob Pilley says:

    Having digital communications between the cockpit and ATC is years overdue. The important thing to remember is: It must work on the ground and in the air, taxi, departure, enroute, oceanic, approach, landing and taxi. If it doesn’t why bother? .

    The FAA, unfortunately is going in so many ‘new?’ directions I seriously doubt they can pull it off without experiencing the same disasters as the Advanced Automation System and colossal cost and schedule overruns of other later ATC programs, eg. STARS.

    I demonstrated to the FAA a seamless air and ground airport environment (ATC and COCKPIT) with a seamless transition from the enroute to the surface environment some 20 years ago and received 10 U.S. patents for the work, (inc. one, notice of allowance, let go abandon). To see video go to.

    See http://www.youtube.com/user/vicksburg76 Click Youtube complete.

    My fears are that the industry will not adopt a cost effective implementation that abandons the obsolete costly technologies that today keep the aviation system from advancing sensibly.

    But, that is the Washington way after all… cut nothing …add everything.

    All the best,

    Bob Pilley
    Engineer, inventor, writer