FAA Needs to Clarify NextGen’s Long-Term R&D Process

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Juliet Van Wagenen

[Avionics Today 09-07-2016] The FAA lacks a clear process for identifying and coordinating NextGen long-term Research and Development (R&D), finds a new report by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of the Inspector General (DOT OIG). The report warns that this oversight could slow the pace of NextGen implementation if the FAA fails to identify and address high priority long-term R&D programs, such as the advanced application of Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) In.

In 2013, Congress mandated that the FAA develop a plan for implementing the U.S. Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) program and the technologies it encompasses by 2025, coordinating research efforts with other federal agencies through the newly established Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO). But Congress eliminated funding for the FAA’s JPDO in 2014 amid concerns that the agency had failed to establish a clearly defined role for the organization. The IG found that while the FAA established the Interagency Planning Office (IPO) in May 2014 to coordinate NextGen R&D across the federal government, the agency still hasn’t laid out a clear picture for the program or how to track and address high-priority issues. “While FAA reallocated JPDO’s statutory responsibilities to its NextGen Office, the agency lacks a clear process for identifying high-priority R&D to support NextGen, which was one of JPDO’s key roles,” the inspector general said in a statement released alongside the report. According to the report, which was released in late August, since taking on these responsibilities, IPO has made some progress in identifying R&D priorities, including a list of six recommendations for prioritizing NextGen R&D efforts that have the potential to advance NextGen capabilities and that have medium or low technological maturity. These include aviation cyber security, Multifunction Phased Radar (MPAR), Alternative Positioning Navigation and Timing (APNT), Integrated Arrival/Departure/Surface (IADS), applied traffic flow management, and AutoMax, a project to identify and develop autonomous capabilities to meet future National Airspace Systems (NAS) needs, including increased capacity, mixed equipage, and flexibility.

These activities are only a starting point for further identifying and coordinating high-priority research and development, however, and the FAA has yet to determine a specific timeline or the technological impact of each, alongside an assessment of the amount of investment necessary for each program. “There are also cross-cutting human factors issues for both controllers and pilots regarding how much automation can safely and reasonably be accommodated by   the controller workforce and by pilots,” the report notes, citing Data Link Communications (Data Comm) specifically and how they will impact the size and   productivity of the controller workforce. “FAA cannot effectively manage advances in NextGen until these issues are addressed, which may require significant research and coordination.” The FAA is currently focusing the bulk of its attention on its near-term goals, which includes investment priorities such as Performance-Based Navigation (PBN) and establishing data communications capabilities between pilots and air traffic controllers. While the IG identifies this as a meaningful step because a short-term focus is necessary to meet the needs of the NextGen stakeholders, having a clear long-term vision better positions the agency to plan for the future. “Until it has such a vision, FAA will be unable to formally establish and validate how its six previously identified high-priority areas support that vision or whether any higher-priority R&D may be needed. A longer-term vision is particularly important because the original vision for NextGen is not what is being implemented today,” the report notes. Currently, the FAA is not currently focusing on planning for post-2025 implementation, despite the lengthy timeframe often involved in developing and transitioning air traffic technology from research to implementation, but the FAA’s assistant administrator said the agency is planning to write out a 20- to 30-year vision for the NAS, to be released in 2017.

Going forward, the report suggested that the FAA establish and document a process with clear roles and responsibilities for identifying and prioritizing long-term R&D for air traffic management and related effort. The report also recommends linking the long-term vision for NextGen, once completed, with current R&D efforts to identify any additional R&D that may be required, among other recommendations. “While FAA has taken steps since the dissolution of JPDO to integrate some of the   functions in the NextGen Office, further work is still needed to ensure that FAA has effective policies, processes, and mechanisms in place to facilitate interagency coordination on R&D to advance NextGen and modernize the NAS,” the report states. “Until FAA has a clear vision for the future configuration of NextGen, the agency will continue to face challenges in identifying and coordinating its R&D needs with other federal agencies.”