Tuesday, May 18, 2010

NextGen in the mid-term

Posted by John McHale

While planning for our avionics conferences this year, the thing our advisory board kept hammering home to me was that avionics engineers don't want to hear about what's happening ten or 15 years down the road, they want to know what will help their businesses today. Hence, the theme for this year's Avionics USA conference -- NextGen in the mid-term.

The big change coming in commercial aviation is the transition toward NextGen, the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA's) Next Generation Air Transportation System and in Europe Eurocontrol's Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR). Both are still nearly a decade away from full deployment, but avionics designers are already beginning to implement new standards and technology now, in the mid-term to be ready for the transition.

NextGen will bring air traffic management (ATM) from a ground-based radar system to a satellite-based system. One of our advisory board members told me it will "bring the ATM decision making from the ground to the pilot" through the software and electronics he will have in the cockpit. Enabling this is Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast (ADS-B) technology, which should cut down on midair collisions and weather-related accidents. ADS-B systems are already being implemented in aircraft today.

NextGen avionics will be implemented in electronic flight bags, avionics displays, embedded computers, GPS and other navigation devices, and most importantly software applications such as real-time weather monitoring that enable pilots to take over their own ATM decision-making. It will also improve trajectory performance, reduce fuel emissions, and lower fuel costs through performance-based operations, specifically trajectory-based operations and required navigation performance (RNP) techniques and monitoring technology.

Challenges facing these designers right now include costly software and hardware safety certification of NextGen systems and integrating them into old aircraft. Harmonizing with the military is also very important as many military aircraft – manned and unmanned -- fly in civilian airspace. This is especially challenging in Europe as there are many different countries, each with military branches that do not currently work well together.

All these issues are difficult on their own with an economy that tanked and has many avionics suppliers thinking more about how to survive in the mid-term rather than how to integrate NextGen in the mid-term.

This is why I'm most excited about a panel discussion we're having at the event next month on June 3 titled "How to Add New Avionics to Airplanes in Downturn Economy." The panelists are Rudy Bracho, senior manager of business development at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, Capt. Brian Will, director airspace modernization and advanced technologies at American Airlines, Chad Cundiff, vice president of crew interface products at Honeywell Aerospace, and Joel Otto, senior director, commercial systems marketing at Rockwell Collins.

I'm the moderator, so if you have any questions you think I should ask these guys, respond here, send them to me at jmchale@pennwell.com, or come on down to San Diego and check out the panel. To register click here.

Shoot me some good ones to get the panelists to open up!