FAA tests comm system for pilots

The airline industry's economic troubles last fall held up part of the Federal Aviation Administration's air traffic control modernization plan, but work on the project resumed with a successful test last month.

Pilots and air traffic controllers at the Miami International Airport exchanged more than 600 messages in 28 hours without uttering a word by using Controller-Pilot Data Link Communications.

Through CPDLC, FAA plans to clear the crowded airwaves of some voice communications between pilots and controllers, said John Thornton, director of the FAA's Free Flight program, which oversees most of the agency's modernization efforts. The system will use two-way text messaging for routine messages, which make up nearly half of all communications.

No jive

The glut of voice communications can choke the limited radio frequencies used for air traffic and cause communication gridlock and flight delays. FAA hopes using text messaging will reduce miscommunication due to differences in language or dialect.

After Sept. 11, the program was put on hold as major airlines suffered severe financial losses. Many said they could not afford to equip their aircraft with the digital radio equipment needed for CPDLC.

Airlines must spend about $80,000 to $100,000 to equip each aircraft, Thornton said.
But in a December 2001 meeting, several airlines decided to move forward. Miami controllers will use CPDLC Build 1, the first version, in September, and an enhanced version, Build 1A, will be used by December 2005 at 19 centers across the nation.

Before Sept. 11, FAA planned to have a fully functional version of the system running at Miami by this month and to complete Build IA by December 2003.

Computer Sciences Corp. is the lead contractor on the $18 million project.
Among other contractors:
  • Aeronautical Communication International of New York will conduct software engineering verification.

  • Bloodworth Integrated Technology Inc. of Reston, Va., will perform quality assurance.

  • Certification Services Inc. of Seattle will provide software development assurance.

  • Lockheed Martin Corp.'s Air Traffic Management division in Rockville, Md., will provide integration and engineering.

In Miami, FAA conducted its tests with a Convair 580 and Boeing 727 aircraft from the William J. Hughes Technical Center and an American Airlines Boeing 757.

The aircraft were equipped with avionics equipment from Rockwell Collins Inc. of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The equipment included a CMU-900 Communications Management Unit, a VDL-2 digital radio and an APM-900 aircraft personality module.

Talk to me

Jeffrey Hmara, director of FAA's Free Flight Phase 2, said the CMU, when used with a VDL-2 radio, lets pilots communicate with the CPDLC system in the controller's room. The radio transmits data at 31.5 Kbps. The personality module automatically transmits information on the type of aircraft and airline.

Controllers use a National Air Space host computer made up of two IBM Model 3083 mainframes.

The mainframes, for which the software is written in Jovial, perform flight data processing, radar tracking and other air traffic management functions, Hmara said.

A Display System Replacement receives tracking and other data from the host computer and formats it for display to the controller.

An IBM RISC 6000 Data Link Applications Processor translates messages into a format that can be sent to pilots. Thornton said CPDLC allows faster transmission of messages than via voice.

'Even lengthy control instructions can be sent with just a few keystrokes,' he said.

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