In Air Traffic Management, 60 Seconds is a Long Time
(Extracted from Raytheon's Defender Magazine)
Interview with JPDO Director Charlie Keegan
Charlie Keegan looks forward to the day when a lot of people in America can have personal access
to the proverbial "corporate jet." And he doesn't think it's that far around the corner. Seriously?
Think about it. While luxury automobiles weigh in at $80,000+, in parallel there is a growing
popularity of "fractional ownership," (partnerships between two or more parties to own and operate a
single aircraft). So who's to say a few would-be jet-setters couldn't pool resources to purchase one
of the $1 million+ very light jets that are coming on the market.
With up to 6,000 aircraft already crowding U.S. skies at any given time, and "free flight" in the
not-so-distant future, the thought of the Joneses cruising from region to region for an afternoon
picnic must scare the heck out of the nation's 15,000 air traffic controllers...today handling an
average of one landing once every 60 seconds at each of the nation's 5,000 airports.
Yet the thought of more aircraft in the skies over America doesn't scare Charlie Keegan, a pilot
and former controller, whose job it is to peer beyond the year 2020 and come up with a blueprint for
and then implement the Next Generation Air Transportation System. Feeding Keegan's confidence, and
smack in the middle of such a blueprint, will be "network-enabled operations," or NEO as the FAA
likes to call it. It is not too wild to suggest that NEO will do nothing less than fully transform
the process of air traffic management in the United States, supplying pilots, controllers and
passengers with vast new volumes of information to let them know virtually everything they need to
fly safely, securely, on time, and potentially with greater freedom of navigation.
As the Director of the multi-government agency Joint Planning and Development Office, Charlie
Keegan's job is to position the nation's air traffic management resources for a more complex and
data-rich future. It's a future, Keegan maintains, that cannot be reached without network-enabled
Network centricity is not just about connecting systems at the FAA. It's about connecting people
and whole organizations too. Keegan is responsible for joint planning and coordination of the future
air transportation system with an unprecedented roster of six government agencies including the
Department of Transportation/FAA, the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security,
the Commerce Department, NASA and the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy. Connecting
six disparate government agencies around a single air traffic management mission, Keegan observes,
will be the first "non-technical" networking test.
Charles Keegan, who began his career with the FAA as a flight controller in 1979, and served as
Associate Administrator for Research and Acquisitions before his current assignment, spoke to
Defender recently about a next generation challenge to migrate the nation's air
transportation system into the new millennium, with NEO as a partner.
Here's what he had to say.
Defender: The military tends to talk about network centricity in terms of tightening
the "sensor-to-shooter" loop or getting more information to the warfighter. How does the FAA
characterize this growing technology revolution?
Keegan: It's really not so different. It's about getting the best information through the
chain of command to make good decisions. In this case, the end users happen to be pilots and air
traffic controllers instead of warfighters. The information might concern the weight of the
aircraft, fuel burn levels, delays, maintenance cycles, weather or even security precautions.
There's tons of data out there. The goal is to get it to the decision-makers in the best way and as
quickly as possible.
Defender: Describe some of the inherent benefits and attributes of a more
network-centric air traffic management world.
Keegan: Sixty seconds is a very long time in the air traffic management environment. Some
5,000 to 6,000 aircraft are in the air at any given time traveling at speeds up to 600 knots, all
seeking to land at a rate of one per minute per airport. What we consider routine would not be so
casual by other standards. With all that volume, knowing the exact intent of each aircraft at every
point in time would be extremely valuable. What are their passenger requirements? Which connections
are they trying to make? Do they have any special requirements that have arisen? We have to have
information everywhere, all the time. The data is available; the goal is to distribute it seamlessly
to those who can make use of it; baggage handlers for instance. Having the information would help a
lot of people get in and out, and up and down, more quickly. From a safety standpoint, in a
network-centric environment we could remotely know much more about the air worthiness of an aircraft
which, once again, could enable us to have the right response when necessary.
Defender: What are some of the key, enabling technologies that will help thrust U.S.
air traffic management into the network centric future?
Keegan: At the forefront are the data links to provide an internet-like capability and the
sensor technology to draw in more data. For example, some of the sensors on the ground and in the
aircraft will enable us to fly closer together. The Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast
system provides a unique way to identify nearby aircraft and to provide information to the pilot.
The system can be used to reduce separation between planes. Data links with a wide variety of
information resources are critical. We're experimenting with a set of protocols and creating an
operational evaluation environment. There is a lot of information out there that state-of-the-art
data links can help us deliver to the cockpit.
Defender: How can the expanded use of satellites help?
Keegan: Every time we decouple the airspace from the ground we're making progress. While
aircraft do not have to fly directly over a ground station to maintain contact, they have to stay
close. So we're not done with satellites by a long shot. Satellite navigation, communications and
surveillance bring a lot of advantages. It enables a more fluid structure. Spectrum allocation
issues also arise with ground based assets. That's another reason to cut the cord. Decoupling from
ground assets would make it easier to fly wherever you want to go.
Defender: How will network-enabled operations facilitate free flight, or the ability to
fly along self-charted routes with minimal restrictions?
Keegan: Anything that reduces the restrictions on the aircraft gets us one step closer to
free flight. Network enabled operations could place tremendous capability in the aircraft, to pick a
route, with "see-avoid" surveillance immediately available. Pilots could use more information to
select their style of flight. For example, they may want to find the smoothest ride possible by
relying on the best weather information. Or maybe they want to restrict fuel consumption.
Defender: How can network-enabled operations ease the burden on the nation's 15,000 air
Keegan: Air traffic control is a highly manual, labor-intensive process. The controller
identifies conflicts and forwards instructions to the pilot by voice. The pilot then takes action
manually and validates that by voice back to the controller. The process of "see-ID-take
action-validate" requires a lot of actions on the part of human beings. While that will never
entirely go away, there are tremendous opportunities for automation. The pilots and the controllers
shouldn't have to make all of the correlations when some of that can be done automatically. Since
there will be increasing volumes of aircraft in the skies, we have to use automation to decrease
some of the activities that require human beings. That's the only way to lessen the burden. A
network-centric environment has to be in place to provide speed to operate.
Defender: How will your organization, the FAA's Joint Planning and Development Office,
help the nation achieve its air traffic management goals?
Keegan: The team here is leading the prototyping of network enabled operations while
bringing together multiple government agencies to focus on one mission. In addition to DOT and FAA,
we're working with the DoD, the Department of Homeland Security, the Commerce Department, NASA and
the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Although there are inherent challenges in a
multi-agency effort of this size, the JPDO is uniquely challenged to help break through the
bureaucratic hurdles and seize opportunities where our various agencies share interests and
responsibilities. The first non-technical test of the system will be whether we can collaborate and
implement an actual system. There are prototypes underway to demonstrate that we can hook up various
elements of the aircraft and ground control elements with the security and defense infrastructure.
However, we also have a responsibility to deploy new technology in a cost-effective, seamless way.
Accomplishing this task will certainly keep us all busy and working together as the mission evolves.
Defender: In the broadest sense, what does NEO mean to the future of air traffic
management in the United States?
Keegan: The data requirements will be too immense for humans to handle without the help of
technology. The next generation system must rely much more on decisions made by machines and
automation to do the job. Simply put, the future is not possible without network-centric operations.