The Federal Aviation Administration predicts that as many as one billion passengers a year could be flying the nation's airways by the year 2015. While technology is changing with the blink of an eye, aviation users and industry partners are demanding that the national airspace system meet their growing needs and expectations.
The government is responding to this demand with a vision for the next generation air transportation system (NGATS). The NGATS will transform the current system by leveraging new technologies to meet future needs, by 2025. The NGATS vision is to allow travelers to choose how, where and when they want to travel while making their experience as safe, secure and hassle-free as possible.
Network-enabled operations will be a key component of the NGATS, addressing the enormous amount of information that is generated - from aircraft position to weather to potential security threats. Today, there is no core central point where this pertinent data is managed to provide decision-makers quick access to the information they need. Network-enabled operations will offer just that - providing the right information to the right person at the right time.
New technologies and applications are being developed to support the NGATS. Airborne networking is one potential technology that could hold promise toward enabling the advancement of the NGATS.
What is Airborne Networking?
Airborne networking, the new science of bringing network connectivity to aircraft, is a technology that has the potential to integrate and support a myriad of activities in both the cockpit and cabin environments.
Airborne networking for the cockpit offers many possibilities: digital air traffic communications that will provide pilots with better access to digital information sources, air transport operations and administration, enhanced weather information and 4-dimensional trajectory flight plan management from the air traffic control system. Also, safety will be enhanced when the flight crew gains better and quicker access to information sources. Digital verification techniques can be employed to ensure the security of the information. Airborne networking also has the potential to provide crucial security information to Federal Air Marshals, airline operations and flight crews.
Airborne networking for the cabin offers communications for passengers that will enable them to access in-flight entertainment, along with aircraft maintenance information and other non-critical information sources.
The end-state airborne networking system is envisioned as a network of ground stations, specially equipped aircraft, satellites and unmanned aerial systems to carry two-way broadband communications traffic to aircraft for use by passengers, operators and air traffic control centers.
Airborne Networking Flight Tests
Critical flight tests to demonstrate the capability of airborne networking were conducted at the William J. Hughes Technical Center, in late July, using a system developed by Project Management Enterprises Inc. (PMEI), of Bethesda, Md. These tests successfully demonstrated a beyond line-of-sight relay capability, where direct radio communications were made at very long distances - distances greater than the curvature of the earth normally allows for direct radio communications. This capability was achieved by establishing connectivity between a distant aircraft, an intermediate-placed aircraft and a ground station.
The Airborne Networking project was the first to conduct flight tests in the Technical Center's Bombardier Global 5000 Business Jet. The flying laboratory is equipped with multiple airborne networking capabilities. Two aircraft, a ground station and ground-based communication support networks were used in the flight tests. The project engineers successfully relayed messages and simulated 4-dimensional flight planning information from one aircraft to another, and then to the ground station, over an extended airborne network. In fact, an email message was successfully sent to 172 people during one of the flight tests, from 140 miles out over the ocean. This transmission could never have been accomplished without the use of airborne networking technology.
This was the first-ever civil aviation (non-military) flight test of this kind, conducted in the world.
Airborne networking technology offers potential solid support for the NGATS, which requires implementation of 4-dimensional trajectory flight planning. The airborne networking technology has strong potential to enhance future oceanic communications, resolving communications problems currently faced in the oceanic environment.
The next airborne networking flight tests will include the addition of a third aircraft to the experiment, multiple ground stations and an extended relay capability of the airborne network. These tests are planned for late fall.
After successful flight tests using three aircraft, more flight tests will be conducted using four aircraft, further increasing the complexity of the airborne network and the extended range of communications capabilities for aircraft flying beyond the line of sight of the ground station radio.