The FAA Eyes Big Data Possibilities
By David Hughes, Federal Aviation Administration
Big data is expanding the impact of the FAA’s NextGen initiative in a big way. As NextGen implementation continues to move forward, the agency is disseminating digital flight, aeronautical and weather data, and collaborating with industry on ways to make use of the vast amounts of available information. The agency is also conducting research on new applications made possible by technological advances that increase the accessibility of FAA data.
A New Look at Operational Efficiency
One of the more cutting edge ideas being developed is using big data for real-time analysis of air traffic operations. Currently, the data are examined at some point after operations are completed.
"Big data today can help identify operational patterns, which presents the opportunity for us to develop new concepts and methods for looking at how to improve efficiency," said Natesh Manikoth, chief scientific and technical advisor for National Airspace System (NAS) software.
As the FAA considers the possibilities of real-time analysis of operations, NASA and MITRE Corp. are doing preliminary research on the concept.
With the right types of analytics, complex data can reveal anomalous behavior. This is where real-time analysis could prove significant. When operational data is fused with other types of data, it will be possible to detect safety or security issues in the early stages before problems occur.
New types of air vehicles increasingly operating in the NAS, such as Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), underscore the need for real-time analysis.
"Both large and small UAS operations present very different traffic patterns from those we are used to with manned aircraft, and we are seeing more and more of these new types of operations every day," Manikoth said.
Accommodating higher volumes of these operations safely and effectively is what NASA is working on within its UAS research program. This effort defines the near and long-term vision of UAS operations anticipating there will be a significant number of flights at all altitudes in the future.
"We need to lay the groundwork now to make sure higher tempo operations will work. We need another layer of safety," he noted.
ASIAS Processes Data for Safety
NextGen is already using big data for safety analysis in today’s NAS.
The FAA’s Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing (ASIAS) program aggregates safety data by the terabyte from 185 sources across industry and government, including 46 commercial air carriers and 21 corporate/business operators of jets, turboprops or piston aircraft. This voluntarily supplied safety information is used in a de-identified, aggregated, and protected manner, solely for the purposes of improving safety. The data collection allows safety researchers to compare multiple sources of information for a single safety incident. It also enables users to perform integrated queries across multiple databases.
ASIAS depends on flight story information assembled from a variety of databases, including a composite of FAA surveillance information called a threaded track as a foundational element. So in addition to the radar track, the flight story contains weather and safety information added from sources such as the Aviation Safety Action Program and the Flight Operational Quality Assurance program. The compilation of data reveals not only what happened but why it happened. In the future, Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast position reports will be added to the threaded track.
Compiling threaded tracks currently takes weeks, but the long-term goal is to make it possible to create threaded tracks on almost a next-day basis. Once that happens, the FAA will make better use of surveillance-based algorithms to affect more real-time analysis, according to Scott LeMay, the FAA's ASIAS program manager.
Another FAA safety program involving big data is Operational Analysis of Risk (OARS). OARS is being run by the Air Traffic Organization’s Program Management Organization. This program will provide access to safety data in a secure, reliable manner to FAA safety specialists and external partners, including NASA.
OARS will aggregate information from multiple databases and incorporate many functions of legacy safety analysis tools. The FAA is currently conducting an investment analysis of OARS, and an initial investment decision is scheduled for January 2017.
Sharing Data and Collaborating
The FAA’s goal going forward is to disseminate information to many hundreds of users through the System Wide Information Management System (SWIM), which facilitates the sharing of data across the agency and with approved partners.
It used to be that if users of the NAS wanted to receive a variety of data from the FAA they would have to install a dedicated, high-bandwidth T-1 transmission line for each type of data received from the agency. This could get expensive fast, but now with the advent of SWIM, it is possible to obtain all of the data the FAA offers at no charge beyond the cost of laying a single T-1 line.
The FAA expects this to generate a new standard in how flight data is compiled and analyzed by airlines, airports, business jet operators and general aviation groups. New users will also include companies not directly involved in the aviation industry such as taxi and limousine companies that are already monitoring flight arrival information to further business opportunities.
Airlines are masters at analyzing data in order to run their operations more efficiently. The FAA is committed to making it easier for airlines to conduct air traffic data analysis faster, better, and cheaper to achieve increased efficiency in the NAS.
One example of this type of collaboration on the use of big data is the FAA‘s recent agreement with NetJets, an on-demand service. In February, the agency agreed to a five-year memorandum of agreement with the company.
"The FAA is collaborating with NetJets as the company analyzes NextGen data spanning several years. This approach promises to deliver a lot of operational insight," said Pamela Whitley, Deputy Assistant Administrator for NextGen.
Based in Columbus Ohio, NetJets has enlisted Ohio State University to support the effort. Manikoth says NetJets plans to mine the company’s own operational data along with FAA information to improve the efficiency of its operations.
While the airlines develop their own applications to process FAA and proprietary airline data, the FAA will focus on applications to process big data for safety and overall NAS management, Manikoth noted.
FAA Data for the Public
The FAA is also interested in what types of data general aviation pilots need and how they will obtain it in the future.
FAA Deputy Administrator Mike Whitaker announced an External Data Access initiative (EDAi) at Sun ‘n Fun airshow in Florida earlier this month.
The agency aims to increase and improve the public's access to FAA flight, aeronautical and weather data. The goal is to spur innovation, provide better opportunities for the development of new applications and services, and ultimately, advance safety and efficiency.
The initiative's first phase focuses on the release of data in the aeronautical domain — for example, data used to create charts. Subsequent phases will evaluate the release of FAA data from other areas, such as flight and safety.
The EDAi team is actively engaging with stakeholders now, to gather input about the data that they would like to receive. Members of the team attended the Sun ‘n Fun event to collect feedback from attendees using an electronic survey and a crowd sourcing application. They are reaching out directly to individuals and companies that have interacted with FAA aeronautical data and information in the past, as well as potential new users to learn more about how the general aviation community might use this information.