The deployment of the Future Air Navigation System 1/A is necessitating an upgrade of non-airliner aircraft in order to use the global air navigation system despite its being voluntary in some regions. In addition, according to SITA, the airline industry needs to stay vigilant in order to optimize the equipment.
“The world is flying more, with an increasing number of data laden, new- generation aircraft taking off every day,” SITAONAIR head of Cockpit Communications Portfolio Andy Hubbard told Aerospace Tech Review.
“This not only puts pressure on Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) to manage limited airspace but also manage the world’s aircraft communications infrastructure across increasingly limited bandwidth. Additionally, the industry is facing pressure to reduce its carbon footprint, as well as adapting to regional regulatory activity. Fortunately, a digital shift in aircraft communications is already well underway. There are dedicated IP links for the flight deck that offer secure, global and higher-throughput channels for vital air-to-ground and ground-to-air exchanges, as well as an uptake of 3G and 4G cellular networks which offer cost-effective options for expanding ground coverage. However, conventional VHF/VDL will remain key to delivering safety communications for the foreseeable future.”
The technology essentially allows digital communications between aircraft and controller by text instead of voice for clearances and reducing pilot and controller workloads. The increased accuracy also significantly expands airspace by reducing separation requirements. Benefits include reduced delays and more efficient routes, improved controller and pilot efficiency, reduced operational errors, reduced ground delays owing to congestion and weather and reduced fuel burn and emissions.
“FANS 1/A+ was established in certain North Atlantic airspace while Aeronautical Telecommunications Network Baseline 1 (ATN B1) was its European equivalent,” explained Universal Avionics in its white paper. “In the US, Controller-Pilot Data Link (CPDLC) and CPDLC Departure Clearance (CPDLC DCL) more effectively manages airspace, addresses communication frequency congestion and improves safety. Data Comm FANS today uses automatic position reporting and CPDLC to directly communicate to ATC over VHF using VDL Mode 2 or SATCOM (Inmarsat or Iridium) in lieu of ACARS, to enable more efficient communications between the aircraft and ATC.”
And it is this automation that is attracting users. With the best-equipped, best-served philosophy of air traffic management systems, it is now in the operators’ best interest to upgrade their aircraft. Airliner manufacturers are well along in equipage and while business aviation OEMs have been preparing for this brave new world and avionics manufacturers such as Collins Aerospace, Universal Avionics (UA), GE Aviation, Honeywell and others, developing equipment, the onus is now on operators.
“We’ve seen a lot of focus so far on the benefit of equipping airline and Part 121 operations,” said Dan Reida, vice president sales and support for Universal Avionics. “However, there is substantial operational improvement for business aviation operators who take advantage of CPDLC DCL and en route capabilities.”
Chuck Wade, Collins Aerospace principal marketing manager, agreed. “Unfortunately, in business aviation, because they are used only 300 to 400 hours a year, sometimes the cost/benefit doesn’t add up,” he said. “But the value proposition is in the participation in the National Airspace System (NAS) and as this technology unfolds throughout the 2020s, it will just be a cost of doing business. For business aircraft to remain relevant, especially in busy areas such as Southern California, Florida and the Northeast, CPDLC will be an expectation and you won’t be able to manage without it. But you will also see cost effective solutions come to the market. I know that is top of mind at Collins.”
For those doing that cost/benefit analysis Wade offers this. “Put yourself in the controller’s position,” he said. “The controller has 60% of the fleet they are handling equipped. So, where do you think that puts an aircraft that isn’t equipped? The FAA is deploying all this new technology to benefit NAS so the priority will be on those who will help them achieve the efficiencies they are after. As far as the FAA is concerned everything about flight deck connectivity is about NextGen Data Comm. Eventually, it will get to the point if you want to participate in the NAS, you are going to need this equipment. We are experiencing increased conversations around this technology and the benefits associated with it.”
SITA has been a key enabler for a number of ANSPs and aircraft operators to help unlock the benefits with its FANS managed service but still the cost/benefit analysis is complex because it also includes carbon emissions and that isn’t necessarily top of mind in business aviation operations.
“There are several operational factors at play, at the heart of which is airspace productivity,” Hubbard explained. “In this sense, coordination and exchange of flight data between systems on the flight deck and ATC is rapidly becoming a key factor in unlocking further airspace productivity. The ultimate panacea is the enablement of free routing airspace through Trajectory Based Operations and applications like Extended Projected Profile (EPP) and 4D Trajectory coordination (4DTRAD) brought over the next generation of data link services. EUROCONTROL estimates the benefits of the shift to free routing airspace at 10,000 tons/day in reduced C02 emissions and a daily saving in fuel bills of around €3 million. Other regional campaigns put the savings estimate at between 200 and 500 kg of CO2 per flight from optimized arrivals and approaches based on RNP and 4D Trajectory coordination over data link.”
Brave New World
For a growing number of ANSPs, the suite of technologies supporting FANs is a requirement, according to a Universal Avionics.
“Data Comm systems have matured over the past three decades from an aircraft OEM cost-saving feature to a necessity for effective worldwide airspace management and communication advancements,” it said in its white paper. “Several areas are mandating Data Comm capabilities and excluding non-equipped aircraft from airspaces with the most-desirable and cost-saving routes. Equipping for FANS 1/A+, CPDLC DCL, or ATN B1 operations can meet regulatory requirements and provide a substantial return on investment for aircraft dependent on those airspaces. The addition of FANS Domestic initial capabilities such as CPDLC DCL at major U.S. airports can virtually eliminate wait times for aircraft clearance delivery, potentially reducing operating costs significantly over time.”
Besides CPDLC, FANS Oceanic requires Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Contract (ADSB-C), VDL Mode 2 data link radio and/or satellite communications, and of course ADS-B, required in the U.S. since January 1, for domestic operations.
UA noted VDL Mode 2 network, a high-speed and high-capacity digital communications network, provides a massive increase in message capacity – roughly 20 times that of ACARS – and is more cost efficient and reliable than traditional VHF.
The FAA successfully completed the first phase of FAA’s NextGen efforts to deploy CPDLC at 62 of the busiest airports in the US two years ahead of schedule and is now deploying it to centers having completed Kansas City and Indianapolis centers.
However, a 2019 DOT Office of Inspector General report on the aircraft equipage noted this phase will likely take longer and be paced by equipage of non-airline and regional airline fleets. The schedule calls for the balance of en route centers to be operational by the end of 2021 and then the full set of Data Comm capabilities will be brought on in 2025.
“The introduction of FANS is big step for the industry in terms of easing the communication between pilots and ATC,” Gary Thelen, director, Navigation & Guidance for GE Aviation, said. “However, FANS is just the first step in the roadmap of capabilities to make this communication seamless for the pilot and ATC. The wide adoption of tablets in the flight deck, high-bandwidth/high-reliability connectivity, and growing applications really enable and encourage a tighter integration among the pilots, ATC, and operations. With our new connected FMS – TrueCourse FMS and Connected FMS, we expect significant improvements in situational awareness, seamless/automated communication, optimization of routes, additional/automated safety checks, just to name a few.”
Last year, Lufthansa Systems and GE Aviation became the first providers in the airline market to offer a solution that allows for the inflight synchronization of the flight plan between the GE Aviation flight management system (FMS) and Lufthansa Systems pilot applications directly on-aircraft.
“Utilizing capabilities of a connected FMS is a true milestone for digital navigation in aviation, because it automates the daily manual data entry processes of pilots, which are prone to error, and enables the data flow between different applications,” said Dr. Bernd Jurisch, head of flight & navigation products & solutions at Lufthansa Systems. “This synchronization of valuable flight-relevant data between the FMS and pilot applications reduces pilots’ workload and greatly improves their situational awareness, while also significantly mitigating errors through incorporated cross checks that are even graphically visible for the crew.”
The IG’s aircraft census revealed 7,800 aircraft currently equipped. “Of these, 3,166 are domestic airliners, 1,946 are international airliners, and 2,688 are business jets,” the IG reported. “The equipped domestic airliners are 72% of the domestic fleet that can be equipped with Data Comm. Most Boeing and larger Airbus models are equipped, but many mid-size Airbus planes and regional aircraft are not. Other airliners either don’t have a flight management system that can be upgraded or are close enough to retirement that airlines won’t spend the money to upgrade. Nearly all international airliners, of course, are already equipped for FANS equipment that includes data link.”
The fact that more than 2,500 business jets are equipped is a testament to a proactive industry in which OEMs have prepared and flight departments understand that there are benefits to be had.
On the airline side, Wizz Air recently became Europe’s first airline to deploy SITAONAIR’s pioneering ACARS over IP service using terrestrial cellular networks. This flexible channel for on-ground data transmission offers increased capacity and coverage, and higher data throughput, as well as an ample on-ground alternative to VHF/VDL-sparse locations. The service also brings enhanced resilience through the interoperable use of cellular and ACARS networks.
Similarly, Cebu Pacific also uses the platform because it flies to a number of airports that are surrounded by high terrain and that have no VHF Ground Stations (VGS). However, they do have 3G connectivity. ACARS over IP enables their operational ACARS traffic to be sent normally when previously this would have had to wait until a VGS/RGS was in range. Cebu’s aircraft have moved 33% of their VHF Datalink traffic to Cellular.
“The shift to new IP-based datalinks offer new, largely unchartered potential for connecting applications in the cockpit,” said Hubbard. “Dedicated broadband connections enable airframers to maximize the capability of onboard communications management and enable real-time connectivity for updates on graphical weather or fuel optimization. Greater value can also be achieved through the enabling of connected aircraft tracking applications such as SITAONAIR’s AIRCOM FlightTracker which, in conjunction with ACARS, Aireon’s space-based ADS-B and FlightAware’s ground-based data, supports ICAO’s Global Aeronautic Distress & Safety System (GADSS) recommendations.”
Hubbard noted, however, cost barriers and the complexity of making changes to avionics means that datalink advances have not been as swift as required. “With new aircraft continuing to be equipped with conventional ACARS technologies, which are still core to aircraft communications operations, some carriers might not yet feel motivated to upgrade. SITAONAIR’s VHF Data Link mode 2 (VDLm2) proposition overcomes these issues. VDLm2 requires only changes to the ground network – essentially to allow ground stations to pick up messages addressed to other stations in their vicinity – and allows the avionics to remain unchanged. Implementing VDLm2 amounts to deploying a virtual ground station, in addition to the existing ground stations that will continue to operate in the normal point-to-point ‘virtual cable’ mode.”
Mandates on the Horizon
Ultimately, it will not be a matter of choice, UA indicated. “Operators not equipped for FANS 1/A+ capabilities will be excluded from airspace which requires it, increasing total trip distance, time, emissions and ultimately more money,” its white paper explained. “The fact is that some aircraft simply do not have the range to get across the Atlantic without operating on the NAT at optimum altitudes. Operating outside of those optimum altitudes may mean not being able to make the trip nonstop. With the additional requirements in the North Atlantic, even aircraft that would normally fly a random route above or outside of the affected tracks will not be allowed to transition through the NAT if they are not equipped for FANS. This trend will continue as equipage rises and demand for more operations in the airspace increases.”
Satcom Direct agrees. “FANS brings great benefit to business aviation, providing operators the ability to use optimized transatlantic routes,” said Nick Cook, SD director of flight deck services, adding SD offers the FlightDeck Freedom (FDF) datalink service, enabling FANS 1/A and other advanced datalink capabilities for many airframes previously unable to use FANS 1/A. “Upgrades to the FDF datalink offering have been put in place to support multiple FANS retrofit and upgrade options for legacy aircraft. This is all part of our strategy to deliver the latest technologies to reduce pilot workload and contribute to more efficient aircraft operations.”
FlightDeck Freedom supports aircraft equipped with Rockwell Collins CMU-1000 datalink systems as well as aircraft equipped with a Universal Avionics UniLink UL-800/801 Communications Management Unit (CMU) operating simultaneously with Honeywell’s AFIS DMU, providing a simplified upgrade path for legacy AFIS DMU equipped aircraft to become FANS compliant. FDF supports all FANS/LINK 2000+ equipment and will be compatible with all future upgrades to other avionics. The UniLink UL-800/801 CMU upgrades are certified for installation on Gulfstream models GV, GIV, GIVSP and additional aircraft types will be certified in the future. The mode of communication is flexible and can be adjusted to meet the needs of the individual aircraft. Certification of the CMU-1000 system is expected late this year for Falcon 50EX/2000/2000EX and Challenger 604 aircraft.
“Our role really is ensuring a channel is available and users know up front if there are any problems or gaps with coverage,” Cook told Aerospace Tech Review. “Customers get an alert during trip planning on gaps or problems. This information is updated en route. In addition, alerts are sent as reminders as the aircraft approaches a gap, how long it will last and when they are reconnecting with a coverage area. We also provide a means to test an aircraft’s systems and do familiarity training before flight. In addition to bringing automated alerts on gaps, the SD technology monitors hazardous weather and helps with flight crew workload. SD also provides real-time security alerts alerting crews to any attempted cyberattacks or geopolitical issues that would require changing the flight plan or diverting to alternative airports.”
While all this is geared toward improved communications and expanding airspace, it also has a safety benefit in eliminated language barriers by establishing a standardized message set. It also eliminates HF problems during solar flares and reduces HF traffic.
Hubbard cautioned not all communication networks are created equal. “Different networks are required within a safe and sustainable service across each operational domain in order to support diverse needs, from high-traffic continental areas to remote oceanic areas,” he said. “To serve these needs, new IP-based technologies must be highly integrated and industrialized into a single, seamless delivery model, to be market-ready, and bring significant advantages for airlines and airspace management service users.”
There has been an uptick in interest. “A number of our customers have seen the benefits,” Wade, told Aerospace Tech Review, “so we have a good volume of queries from unequipped customers. FANS/CPDLC was built on the backbone of ACARS and airlines have been using that for 30 years. Now we can bring different operational benefits to business aviation. The EFB world continues to expand, leveraging the ACARS network, providing a nice incremental value to customers. Users of super mid-sized aircraft and up are anxious to adopt this technology. The smaller aircraft users, however, are not traditional data link users and so they are less familiar with the technology. However, the value proposition of CPDLC is there and they are responding. We don’t have a lot of these users moving from voice to text, but it will be natural to see crews want to use text.”
Wade also spoke of the financial benefit in being more efficient inflight. “You get quicker clearances with data comm, so you spend less time taxiing and you get more efficient re-routes,” he explained. “Since it is built on the backbone of ACARS we can bring different operational benefits. For instance, this would mean the expansion of EFBs leveraging the ACARS network which will give users an incremental value such as routing messages through ACARS. More will be added to the data stream that can be coupled with pilot logs and scheduling. That hasn’t resonated yet with small flight departments. It is just a matter of getting more value for the same costs and that argument is starting to gain traction.”
As for the future, Wade is anticipating changes will be needed. “As ATC evolves and finds new use cases, it will help us react to the market if updates are needed,” he said. “Towards the end of the decade there may be use cases FAA might find that would help them and could have an impact to products possible. As far as new product or systems, not a lot is being talked about. If you look at FAA road map, the discussions are about upgrading and getting more bandwidth but all that is pretty much using the same backbone on which to build.”