MIAMI – Airports have relied on voice communications over unsecured radio frequencies for decades, with landlines being the only reliable backup. This controlled chaos is overseen by ground-control managers as part of an airport-wide effort to ensure the safety of all ground operations.

Needless to say, the task of keeping track of all moving parts is daunting. However, a digital, wireless airport communications system developed in part by NASA is now in the process of changing the game.

NASA’s new Aeronautical Mobile Aircraft Communication System (AeroMACS) will enable Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Air Traffic Controller (ATC) personnel to transmit safety-critical information digitally and securely and could lead to shorter wait times on the tarmac.

Photo: Wiki Commons

Airports and the Digital Revolution

According to NASA, Just how far airport technology has fallen behind has become too clear to ignore as consumer wireless networks have become readily available. In a nutshell, your smartphone has a faster, more reliable and secure connection than your Pilot’s communication system.

Passengers on board aircraft have high-speed internet connections on their mobile devices, “but the bandwidth available to the Pilot on the communications deck is below kilobits per second,” said Declan Byrne, President of the Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access (WiMAX) Forum.

The Forum, an independent industry association set up to promote and advocate the implementation of AeroMACS technology, also certifies the latest equipment produced for airports. The FAA and other air traffic control agencies around the world, along with NASA, are taking part in the Forum.

At the end of the day, AeroMACS will phase out the use of voice communication as the main mode of knowledge exchange for airport ground operations. The modern, encrypted, high-speed digital data networks would streamline communications between ground crews and air traffic controllers.

Photo: NASA

Current Airport Communications

Today, messages are sent to Pilots after the aircraft is on the ground. These communications include diagrams and GPS-style charts, as well as text instructions for the navigation of the runway, specifics of the assignment of the gate and navigation of the surface.

When any aircraft lands now, the pilot gets on a voice network and speaks to the air traffic control manager over a radio. “If you have a German Pilot trying to speak English to a Chinese ATC, there is certainly a possibility of miscommunication,” Byrne said, adding that the issue could be aggravated by a poor connection.

Therefore, aviation authorities from more than 150 countries have chosen and agreed to follow the WiMAX standard. Formally introduced in 2007, WiMAX uses cellular network technology customizable for a new frequency – the 5091 to 5150 megahertz band is reserved for safety-critical aviation communications only.

Air traffic control managers have communicated with airline Pilots verbally for decades, but with AeroMACS messages will quickly be sent digitally.

WiMAX base LTU1. Photo: Wiki Commons.

Implementation of AeroMACS

AeroMACS is easier to run and maintain than the current voice-based infrastructure, but it will take time for all airports to migrate to the modern technology. NASA says that every aviation authority can choose to implement the tech in smaller stages. 

To date, several US airports are using the device to gather information from surveillance sensors that will help enhance aircraft tracking on runways and taxiways, said Rafael Apaza, NASA’s Senior Investigator for AeroMACS Development and NASA’s Senior Communications Research Engineer, Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, which led the AeroMACS testing.

Airoport would need to install sensors called subscriber stations that will collect, transmit, and receive data. Telrad Networks, an Israeli company with offices in Delmar, New York, is now working with airports around the world to customize system configurations.

Telrad Networks also builds the base station which performs the same function as in a cellular network, routing transmissions, with GPS providing timing for the network. In addition, the company has developed Star Suite, a network management software program that can support any application that an airport may need.

NASA engineers have showed that mobile assets, such as emergency vehicles and laptop computers, can be incorporated into the wireless network. This will make it easier for airport staff to monitor these assets when they are needed.

Beijing Airport. Photo: 王之桐

The Future of Airport Communications

According to NASA, to date, more than 50 airports in about 15 countries have used AeroMACS to replace voice with data transmission. It is projected that the move to more than 40,000 airports worldwide would take 20 years. Once fully integrated, AeroMACS will be able to route any ground communications easily and safely.

A three-month pilot program at Beijing Airport (PEK) deployed the system for mobile assets and found that using AeroMACS instead of voice commands had slashed 20 minutes off the time the aircraft spent on the ground.

As aviation authorities such as the US FAA publish AeroMACS guidelines, Telrad and other hardware vendors will be ready to create new tools to enable the use of wireless communications at airports. As such, innovation will finally come full circle within the aviation industry.

Featured image: Gatwick Airport, Control tower with aircraft in flight in background, DP, 19 August 2004, (CGA857). Photo: Wiki Commons