Data Comm is a capability formed by integrating multiple components.
Each component must be developed and tested individually and collectively.
Stakeholders are involved throughout the development process to resolve operational issues and offer suggestions improve the capability.
An alphabet soup of FAA initialisms — ERAM, DCNS, FTI, FANS, VDL and TDLS — must blend seamlessly to spell out the full potential of Data Communications (Data Comm).
Thanks to FAA and industry teams collaborating to overcome the challenges of integrating many components into a cohesive capability, Data Comm tower services were completed nearly two and a half years ahead of schedule.
Data Comm takes advantage of existing infrastructure. It is composed of the En Route Automation Modernization platform, Data Communications Network Services air-to-ground network, FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure ground-to-ground network, Future Air Navigation System and VHL Digital Link avionics, and Tower Data Link Service tower automation.
The overall capability involves airline dispatchers filing flight plans with an air traffic control center, air traffic controllers delivering the clearances, pilots in aircraft equipped to accept them, and a way to link together these components to transfer data messages.
"What makes [this program] unique is that Data Comm is a system of all these components," said Pete Muraca, a computer scientist who leads the Data Comm avionics laboratory at the FAA William J. Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City, NJ.
"There's nothing you can truly point to and say, 'That's Data Comm,'" added Gina Oliver, Data Comm test design manager at the Tech Center. "And there's no one organization that you can point to, either."
The FAA had a plan and successfully executed it for tower services. Each subsystem underwent development and operational testing to solve issues before the components were linked for end-to-end enterprise testing of subsystems based at the Tech Center, the FAA Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma City, OK, and Harris Corp.'s air/ground communication test bed facility in Melbourne, FL. With any fix or enhancement, all the subsystems were integrated and tested again for performance, function, and stability before being deployed to towers.
At the FAA William J. Hughes Technical Center, Pete Muraca, Data Comm avionics lab leader; Kathy Torrence, Data Comm enterprise test architect; and Gina Oliver (seated), Data Comm test design manager, meet in the ERAM lab. ERAM is one of the subsystems that forms Data Comm.
Data Comm's tower services success required significant stakeholder coordination and involvement. Each subsystem is hosted by its own organization in different locations, and the program needed to involve air traffic controllers and pilots early to get user feedback that developers could use to improve the capability.
"There are a lot of moving parts, and most of those moving parts are not under our control," said Kathy Torrence, a Data Comm enterprise test architect at the Tech Center.
To keep FAA and external stakeholders apprised, a daily stakeholder teleconference included discussions of Data Comm issues that could affect tower services as well as the next step of en route services. Additionally, the joint FAA-Industry Data Comm Implementation Team met monthly to work through and resolve operational issues.
These two groups included representatives from airlines, equipment manufacturers, communication service providers, air traffic controller and technical operations unions, and the FAA Office of Aviation Safety.
"We want all changes to happen early in the process, not when the software is finished," Muraca said. "It's why we want early engagement with the user community."
Prototype Data Comm equipment provided tower departure clearances during trials at Memphis and Newark that ended in January 2016. Those trials enabled the FAA to gather operational information to improve the final system, which now operates at 55 airports.
"When we saw our first clearance go to our first aircraft, people were literally cheering and jumping up and down," Torrence said. "There's so much work that goes into this, but we're all so committed to this program that personally it means a lot to us."
"We're not just replacing an aging system," Oliver said. "We're actually giving them a new capability, and that is pretty exciting."