Collaboration You Can Depend On

The world's air navigation service providers (ANSP) could soon benefit from a new resource to help plan the air traffic management (ATM) improvements they will pursue during the next few decades.

During the past two years the FAA, the SESAR (Single European Sky ATM Research) joint undertaking, government agencies and industries from around the world participated in the development of Aviation System Block Upgrades for the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The block upgrades, intended to facilitate broad, globally harmonized ATM planning, were presented in November 2012 at the ICAO 12th Air Navigation Conference. This fall, the ICAO Assembly will consider the block-upgrades mechanism as part of an update of its Global Air Navigation Plan.

The block upgrades, a streamlined version of NextGen and SESAR planning, lay out the progression planned for key ATM capabilities in five-year increments. They are organized by modules in a matrix of times (the blocks) and capabilities (the upgrades). Block Zero comprises advances that have attained initial operating capability (IOC) already or will reach IOC this year. Block One capabilities will reach IOCs no later than 2018, Block Two capabilities no later than 2023, and Block Three capabilities no later than 2028.

Step-by-step integration of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into commercial airspace provides a straightforward example of this modularized planning. In Block Zero there will be no UAS capabilities common to NextGen and SESAR. Block One will provide implementation of basic procedures needed to operate UASs in unrestricted airspace, including the ability to detect and avoid other aircraft. In Block Two, refined operating procedures will provide for loss of links between the remote pilot and the air vehicle, with a unique squawk code for lost links and enhanced detect-and-avoid technology. Block Three will implement an operating regime in which UASs are treated like any other aircraft on the surface and in non-segregated airspace.

One key feature of the block upgrades is that with ICAO's endorsement, ANSPs can count on the availability of specific capabilities when they are promised. Only the largest, most complex airspaces will need all the capabilities that the block upgrades account for. But the block upgrades will be flexible enough for any ANSP to tailor its plans to its individual needs, budget, schedule and other factors.

And however an operator equips its fleet, its aircraft will be able to take advantage of its equipment anywhere in a fully-harmonized world of ATM.

Coordination of technical efforts to support global and ICAO standardization activities, such as the block upgrades, has a high priority in the collaboration work now underway between the FAA and SESAR, which has grown steadily under a United States-European Union (EU) memorandum of cooperation dating from March 2011.

Other high priorities addressed in the memorandum include harmonization efforts on an airborne collision avoidance system, an avionics roadmap, data link technology and services, Performance Based Navigation, Global Navigation Satellite Systems and automatic dependent surveillance services and technology.

All these activities fall under a global interoperability annex to the memorandum. The FAA and the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, agreed on a second annex, on ATM performance measurement, early this year.

Additional annexes are likely. The FAA believes there could be benefits to adding annexes for ATM cooperation with the European Aviation Safety Agency or for joint research on aviation environmental issues — for example biofuels, clean engines and quiet engines.