Digital Air/Ground Communication System to Add Efficiency, Reduce Costs

August 2013
CAASD works with the Federal Aviation Administration to supplement the current voice-only system of communication between air traffic controllers and flight crews with data communications.
Wires connected to communications device.

Voice communication is currently the only means of relaying information in air traffic management. The FAA has long realized this can be time-consuming, cumbersome, and labor-intensive, requiring step-by-step oral instructions that the pilot must repeat to ensure accurate transmission. This can lead to miscommunications as well as data entry errors into an aircraft's flight management system.

To improve this situation, the FAA wants to supplement the existing system with a digital data link, called DataComm. Its goal is to provide more efficient, clearer, and more reliable information exchange between air traffic controllers and pilots.

In May 2012, the FAA approved a Final Investment Decision (FID) that provides the funds to implement DataComm departure clearance services in 41 air traffic control towers by 2016. Another part of the FID provides approval for continued requirements development for en route services, scheduled to be deployed beginning in 2019.

Contributing Expertise to a Complex Challenge

It took years of work before the FAA could approve the FID for DataComm's initial implementation. Among the challenges: determining the systems engineering requirements, the potential costs and benefits of deploying the system—both to the FAA and other aviation stakeholders, particularly airlines—and the best strategy for implementing it to achieve the greatest possible benefit. MITRE played a major role in all of these endeavors. We have worked with the FAA on the DataComm initiative for many years, contributing a wide spectrum of expertise.

We initially helped create the DataComm concept of operations, architecture, and requirements. We later conducted performance analyses, developed security solutions, and contributed to standards development for the initiative. We also developed benefits and business case analyses vital to the FAA's decision to move forward with the program in 2012.

Other work took advantage of the capabilities of MITRE's Aviation Integration, Demonstration, and Experimentation for Aeronautics, or IDEA, Lab. In the IDEA Lab, we performed human-in-the-loop simulations, bringing pilots in to test and provide input on the proposed DataComm operational procedures.

The MITRE team also analyzed the radio network and spectrum needed for DataComm to operate. The team provided its input to the FAA as the basis for the agency's cost estimates on the network component, as well as to assist in ensuring the availability of spectrum. Additionally, we developed the technical requirements for the radio network and the interfaces of the network with the FAA ground infrastructure.

The introduction of DataComm services in air traffic control towers is a key initial milestone. As the FAA advances its plans for implementation in en route domains, along with additional efforts forecast for the 2020s, MITRE will continue to be an important partner in this endeavor.

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