A Streamlined Process to Aid General Aviation Pilots at Takeoff

August 2017
Topics: Aviation Industry, Mobile Technologies, Avionics, Air Traffic Management
MITRE is researching ways to use mobile technology to improve the process of delivering instrument clearances to general aviation pilots.
The MITRE team discusses the mobile app.

For general aviation (GA) pilots, the weather largely dictates how and when they fly. When visibility becomes poor, GA pilots must operate under Instrument Flight Rules, or IFR, conditions. The pilot receives sets of instructions from the airport traffic control tower to take off and proceed.

But what about the many GA pilots who fly out of smaller airports without airport traffic control towers? Today, in those cases, pilots must obtain their IFR clearance through voice-based methods. They might telephone or use radio calls to a Flight Service Station or the air traffic control facility serving the area. These methods are time consuming and subject to incorrect interpretation.

MITRE researchers saw an opportunity here, and in 2014 began a new research project: "Mobile IFR Clearance Delivery at Non-Towered Airports."

"We saw a need to help both pilots and the Federal Aviation Administration," says Paul Diffenderfer, project principal investigator (PI), "so we began prototyping a low-cost approach to see if we could make the clearance delivery process more reliable and efficient for both pilots and controllers."

The result of this research was the Mobile IFR Clearance Delivery prototype. This mobile device-based concept will allow pilots to obtain a text-based IFR clearance electronically—without oral communication with air traffic controllers.

Why MITRE? "As the operator of the FAA's federally funded research and development center (FFRDC)," says Diffenderfer, "one of our roles is to understand how to take advantage of emerging technologies to support the FAA in its mission. We routinely explore new concepts and prototype capabilities that aren't yet available through the commercial sector for any number of reasons, such as, where the use of the technologies for aviation operations is not well understood." We then transfer the technology either to the FAA for its use or to private industry for commercial development.

Applying a Digital Communications Approach

The concept (see "How the IFR Mobile Clearance Delivery Prototype Works," below) is to use flight plan information from the FAA's System Wide Information Management Flight Data Publication Service. The research prototype, which is used to demonstrate the concept, allows pilots to retrieve flight plans in real time through a mobile app at towered and non-towered airports.

This idea holds the promise of reducing the need for oral communications. It could simultaneously improve flight plan accuracy, reduce pilot and controller workload, and reduce delays at non-towered airports.

"Our initial research focused on non-towered airports," says Kevin Long, project co-PI. "But we quickly realized that the technology is also applicable to towered airports, where controllers also have to devote considerable time to verbally issuing IFR clearances."

Graphic that shows using mobile devices for IFR clearance delivery & release.

Testing Before Takeoff

MITRE has shared the Mobile IFR Clearance Delivery concept with a variety of organizations, including the FAA, the FAA Managers Association, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the Air Traffic Control Association, the National Business Aviation Association, and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. Feedback was positive, with all groups seeing the benefits of replacing oral transactions with electronic ones.

Initial tests demonstrated that the technology works. Additional analysis has been conducted to validate the safety and effectiveness of this approach and its workability for pilots and controllers.

Based on the findings from these tests, the research team has refined the concept and associated prototypes to ensure they meet the operational need and provide efficiency improvements.

During the past year, the MITRE team engaged in concept discussions with key FAA personnel, the FAA System Wide Information Management Program Office, pilot app developers, and other stakeholders. These discussions provided the team with valuable insights into the benefits, challenges, and concerns associated with implementing this capability. The team will continue to engage these and other interested organizations in coming months in preparation for a field demonstration of the clearance delivery concept at selected airports across the country. The initial demonstration is planned to enable a pilot to retrieve an IFR clearance via a mobile app and read it back verbally to air traffic control.

The project team is also preparing a package that will allow for the transfer of the technology to industry stakeholders for further investigation and implementation.

A Tradition of Sharing Technology Innovation

As the operator of the FAA's FFRDC, MITRE's goal is to mature this new concept through hands-on experimentation with users in both laboratory settings and in the field. Once the technology is ready, we will work with the FAA to determine whether implementation is worth pursuing, and the timing and approach for fielding this capability.

Since MITRE does not manufacture or support hardware or software systems, we work directly with the appropriate government and industry partners to transfer the technology for broad implementation and support. We followed a similar process with other recent aviation-related prototypes, including runwaySimulator, a tool for estimating runway system capacity at major airports. General Aviation Airborne Recording Device (GAARD), another app developed for the GA population, allows pilots to record data about their flights and upload it for personal and aggregate analysis.

"With more than three-quarters of all GA pilots already using smartphones and tablets to assist them, we believe it important to explore and understand ways this new technology can help improve the safety and efficiency of flight operations," says Roberta Zimmerman, project team member.

—by Marlis McCollum

Editor's note: This Project Story first ran in March 2016 and has been updated with new information. A version of the March 2016 article originally appeared in the January/February 2016 issue of Managing the Skies, the magazine of the FAA Managers Association.

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