How the FAA Beams Data from the Ground to the Cockpit — And Back


Editor’s Note: This article was originally written by Dave Hughes, FAA NextGen Outreach and Reporting and is now repurposed on Connected Aviation Today with permission from the original author. The article focused on the importance of flight deck communications from ground to cockpit and back.

The FAA has completed flight demonstrations showing how pilots could soon access a wide range of aeronautical, flight and weather information in the cockpit. The data were formerly accessible only to airlines and other National Airspace System (NAS) stakeholders via dedicated landlines.

This adaptable new NextGen capability uses System Wide Information Management (SWIM) to move information from the ground to the cockpit and back. This could greatly improve pilots’ situational awareness on airline flight decks and in cockpits of all types of aircraft. SWIM information is already relayed between the FAA and carriers’ flight operation centers (FOC) via ground-to ground exchange.

Besides the FAA and FOCs, strategic collaborative decision-making requires a critical third component: cockpits, said Biruk Abraham, a NextGen operations research analyst at the FAA who managed the recent Aircraft Access to SWIM (AAtS) flight demonstrations with airlines and other partners.

Biruk Abraham, FAA NextGen Operations Research Analyst

“We need to bring the aircrew into this loop,” Abraham says, explaining why the FAA set up these flight demonstrations. As a general aviation pilot, Abraham understands how pilots’ involvement in SWIM data exchange could help them make better-informed decisions.

When he was in the US Army, Abraham served two tours in Iraq as a Blackhawk helicopter pilot. For decades, military pilots have used kneeboards to hold paper checklists, but in Iraq, Abraham used an electronic one that enabled him to upload and view moving map displays of his mission profile and use a digital chat feature to talk to nearby pilots, military units on the ground, and his command center.

Similarly, the benefits of better-informed civilian pilots are clear. More information on the latest air traffic flows, Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs), and weather makes for safer, more efficient operations. “Pilots will have access to the core information,” Abraham said. “The big picture will allow aircrews to anticipate how the current situation will impact the flight and how to avoid any air traffic bottlenecks.”

Pilots could also play a larger role in collaborative decision-making with SWIM. Currently, FOCs communicate with the FAA’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center on traffic flow, weather conditions and initiatives such as ground stops or en route delays, and they collaborate on how to deal with air traffic bottlenecks.

The AAtS concept shows airlines and other aircraft operators how they might add pilots to the equation. By displaying selected information on existing avionics, such as Electronic Flight Bags (EFB), pilots could have some of the same air traffic and weather information as controllers when requesting a new routing.

EFBs have been appearing on more flight decks in the past several years, Abraham notes. “Almost every type of aircraft operator has invested in EFBs — either with a portable device, such as a handheld computer tablet, or integrated on the flight deck instrument panel,” he says.

The FAA also wants information to flow from aircraft to the ground. “There is a lot of information from the aircraft that we can use,” says Abraham.

Testing SWIM in the Cockpit

The FAA’s flight demonstrations of AAtS — conducted in two phases between 2013 and 2016 — used a variety of EFBs and aircraft.

Providing information to cockpits via SWIM is not a case of one size fits all. “These demonstrations are just showing that information services can be provided to a variety of cockpits without requiring the same equipment in every case,” Abraham says.

None of the information sent to the cockpit during the demonstrations was flight critical, and none of the data were loaded into certified avionics or a flight management system to fly the aircraft, thus avoiding complex avionics certification requirements. Aircraft operators participating in the demonstrations included United Airlines, Virgin America, Flexjet, and FlightOptions, along with some general aviation operators. Flexjetand Flight Option, which are owned by the same parent company, both operate business jets and sell fractional ownership.

If aircraft can access SWIM, it could help decrease delays and aircraft operating costs by enabling collaboration and informed decision making. The FAA is communicating SWIM’s potential in the cockpit to aircraft operators by publishing technical papers and making presentations at industry conferences, including meetings that cater to people interested in data exchange and the use of EFBs.

During both phases of flight trials, Rockwell Collins teamed up with Embry- Riddle Aeronautical University to provide a data management service, which the FAA used to show how information can be moved from the ground to the cockpit. In the second phase, the FAA and its partners demonstrated a two-way data transfer so that information — such as pilot reports and routing preferences — could also be sent from the aircraft back to the ground.

“A key element to the success of AAtS was the demonstration of connectivity using existing commercial aviation communications infrastructure, rather than creating a whole new infrastructure,” says Jon Standley, the former FAA portfolio manager for On- Demand NAS Information.

The first phase of the AAtS trial consisted of 18 flights. The second phase, with 23 flights that ended in July 2016, used that connectivity to explore how operators can use the information provided to interact with the FAA to create a truly collaborative air traffic environment. In the past five years, many airlines have started providing Wi-Fi connections for passengers. Using SWIM, some airlines may decide to piggyback on those connections to uplink information to the cockpit. Of course, the cockpit link will require more security than the passengers’ link.

Boeing and its affiliate, Jeppesen, also participated in the flight demonstration. They modified their existing EFB application to provide the pilot interface on handheld devices for access to SWIM services exchanged from the ground. The demonstrations also tested a variety of data links and bandwidths. Data exchange rates as low as 64 bits per second were tested with legacy aviation broadband systems in the first phase. In the second phase, bandwidth went up to 3 megabytes per second with a satellite link on a United Airlines Airbus in the A320 family.

High-speed data connections could create many possibilities for enhancing the NAS, Abraham says, citing consumer electronics’ rapid evolution. “When smartphones first came out in the consumer market, users didn’t realize at first all the uses they could be put to. Now your phone has apps to track the number of steps you take, as well as your heartbeat.

We fully expect aircraft operators and the aviation industry to be a lot more innovative with FAA data now that it is so accessible,” he adds. Abraham notes that standards will be important for cockpit use of SWIM and that ones used for ground-to-ground data exchange won’t work for airborne applications.

Ground-to-ground data exchanges use standards established for aviation including the Aeronautical Information Exchange Model, Weather Information Exchange Model, and Flight Information Exchange Model. “These data formats include a lot of extra information contained in a header for each message. Rather than send all this data to the cockpit, we streamlined it into a different format,” says Abraham.

The FAA wants to work with anyone who sees value in getting situational awareness information into the cockpit. How the data will be shared and used, however, will vary depending on the type of aircraft operator. For example, a private pilot flying in a piston aircraft under visual or instrument flight rules will probably be more interested in receiving the latest NOTAMs and weather while Part 121 aircraft operators may be more interested in trajectory negotiations to optimize their routes. When an airliner is in a non-critical phase of flight, the aircrew can help dispatchers with strategic planning on issues such as routing or using alternate airports during bad weather.

Now that the FAA has opened access to SWIM data, it is up to aircraft operators and avionics manufacturers to take the next step: creating cockpit-related SWIM products and services that could help their bottom lines while still improving the safety and efficiency of the NAS. Abraham thinks some companies that provide data-management services to SWIM will be able to create a profitable line of business.

“The potential of cockpit-related SWIM products and services is huge, and I think we will see some interesting developments during the next five years,” Abraham says.