FAA: 2 million lines of code process new air traffic system

Just completed ERAM system almost doubles the number of flights that can be tracked in US airspace

Credit: Reuters

The Federal Aviation Administration this week said it had completed the momentous replacement of 40-year old main computer systems that control air traffic in the US.

Known as En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM), the system is expected to increase air traffic flow, improve automated navigation and strengthen aircraft conflict detection services, with the end result being increased safety and less flight congestion.

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The FAA said the first of 20 installations of the ERAM system went online at Salt Lake City Center in March 2012 and the final installation was completed last month at New York Center.

The FAA said the Lockheed Martin-developed ERAM systems “uses nearly two million lines of computer code to process critical data for controllers, including aircraft identity, altitude, speed, and flight path. The system almost doubles the number of flights that can be tracked and displayed to controllers.”

The ERAM system is the underpinning of other key air traffic control systems being developed under the overarching NextGen technology upgrade plan the FAA has been slowly rolling out over the past few years.

Other systems that will ultimately utilize ERAM include:

  • Performance Based Navigation (PBN): Controllers are already using ERAM to make use of Performance Based Navigation (PBN) procedures that enable controllers and flight crews to know exactly when to reduce the thrust on aircraft, allowing them to descend from cruising altitude to the runway with the engines set at idle power, saving on flying time and fuel consumption, the e FAA says.
  • Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B): The FAA is moving steadily toward replacing the old system of ground-based radars to track aircraft with one that relies on satellite-based technologies. ERAM already receives information from aircraft equipped with ADS-B and displays that data on controllers’ screens. This technology has made it possible for controllers to provide radar-like separation to aircraft that previously operated in areas where no radar is available, such as the Gulf of Mexico and large parts of Alaska. ADS-B will replace radar as the primary means of tracking aircraft by 2020, the FAA says.
  • Data Comm: To reduce congestion on radio frequencies, the FAA and the aviation industry continue to develop Data Comm, which will allow controllers and pilots to communicate by direct digital link rather than voice, similar to text messaging. ERAM is already equipped to handle this technology, the FAA says.

 “ERAM gives us a big boost in technological horsepower over the system it replaces,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta in a statement. “This computer system enables each controller to handle more aircraft over a larger area, resulting in increased safety, capacity, and efficiency.”

While the ERAM deployment is a significant achievement, NextGen has been under fire recently because of security concerns.

The Government Accountability Office recently said that as the FAA moves toward NextGen, they system faces cybersecurity challenges in at least three areas: protecting air-traffic control information systems, protecting aircraft avionics used to operate and guide aircraft, and clarifying cybersecurity roles and responsibilities among multiple FAA offices.

According to FAA, so far, approximately 36% of the air traffic control systems in the national airspace system (NAS) are connected using IP, and FAA officials expect the percentage of NAS systems using IP networking to grow to 50 to 60% by 2020.

According to researchers with MITRE and other experts, this hybrid system is the FAA’s first challenge as a system made up of both IP-connected and point-to-point subsystems increases the potential for the point-to-point systems to be compromised because of the increased connectivity to the system as a whole provided by the IP-connected systems, the GAO stated.

“The older systems are difficult to access remotely because few of them connect from FAA to external entities such as through the Internet. They also have limited lines of direct connection within FAA. Conversely, the new information systems for NextGen programs are designed to interoperate with other systems and use IP networking to communicate within FAA. According to experts, if one system connected to an IP network is compromised, damage can potentially spread to other systems on the network, continually expanding the parts of the system at risk,” the GAO stated.

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