The Great DataComm Takeover
By Kristen Knott, ATCA Writer and Editor
The ability to adapt is everything for an air traffic controller. But how much is too much to ask of a controller? Merging technology and human interaction is one of the major challenges in NextGen implementation and evolving Data Communications (DataComm) in an operational environment is one of the most critical pieces of the equation. Presenter Ben Willems of the FAA gave a crash course in En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) DataComm in the first “Tech Talk” of Tech Center Tuesday – the first in a series of workshops highlighting research at the facility.
Willems helps man the Tech Center’s Research, Development, and Human Factors Laboratory (RDHFL), which has conducted a handful of DataComm studies over the last decade. The en route domain was the first to be studied.
“We increased traffic beyond anything we’ve done before,” says Willems, referencing the FAA’s future en route workstation studies. “We work in a symbiotic way in our labs.”
Implementation is planned for 2019, and the en route full services evaluation is planned for Fall 2016. Next, the RDHFL studied the tower domain for Controller Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC).
Major functions of En Route DataComm include altitude clearance and transfer of communications. Studying the widely varying response times of the controller and the pilot is no easy task. Initially they mostly monitored frequency. For example, a brief dialog – such as a quick hi and goodbye – between a controller and a pilot takes about 7 seconds, which can easily use up voice channel capabilities.
“The whole paradigm shifts with DataComm,” says Willems. “Riding the rail down to the runway saves a lot with DataComm – it really frees up the voice channel.”
The RDHFL use a Target Generation Facility (TGF) as a simulation platform to process pilot and DataComm messages. Distributed Environment for Simulation, Rapid Engineering, and Evaluation (DESIREE), originally started around 1999, helped to change that; it originally ran as a NAS-DX but now also runs as an ERAM interface.
However, as far as the Tech Center has come with DataComm, there’s still a long way to go. Controllers still use the earpiece for especially high pressure situations. “We don’t want controllers to use DataComm in time critical situations. It’s something we’re addressing with En Route DataComm.”
Like everything at the Tech Center, collaboration is key to the success of full ERAM implementation. The ERAM DataComm CHI Evaluation included cases developed by the ERAM National User Team, the DataComm Use Case Team, the ERAM CHI Team, and Lockheed Martin, who did the coding. It was the first time working simulated traffic with the new CHI, but Willems found that controllers adapted quickly to the change.
“DataComm is the biggest workload reducer that I’ve seen,” says Willems. “Controllers can handle 25 percent more traffic – they had learned their strategy in two weeks."
Ben Willems, FAA