Air Traffic Resiliency Must Be Measurable
In May 2019, the Resorts Ballroom in Atlantic City, NJ hosted an event focused on the future of air travel. With technical co-chairs from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA)-led event focused on the latest ideas and trends likely to impact air traffic control (ATC).
A major theme of the conference was resilience in air traffic management (ATM) systems and infrastructure. Panelists noted that the over-arching theme is comprised of key elements which include policy, process, people and technology. For any system, resilience depends on the proper construction of each of these elements and each is, in turn, dependent upon the others. For the technology element, many new technologies promise significant efficiency gains and can often achieve this through aggregation of processing, data and information management and communications. In some cases, the likelihood of a system outage might stay the same or even decrease as a result of implementing a new technology, but the impact to National Airspace Systems (NAS) operations may increase significantly. This critical balance was referenced during the conference’s final panel “When Safety Meets Efficiency: Implementing New Technologies”.
How can the aviation industry advance new concepts and move forward with technology implementations quickly and safely? To do so, it is crucial to begin with common terminology defined through FAA led engagements with industry.
How do you accurately define the resiliency of a system that will be integrated into or leveraged within the NAS? What about other meaningful terms such as survivability, sustainability, availability, avoidance and diversity? In many cases they are interdependent. Every word must be defined in relation to its counterparts so the aviation community can use
them consistently to reduce risks to the entire system. Even a word like diversity needs further sub-definitions when being discussed in a modern network by use of pretenses like physical, electrical or logical.
The need for standardized and consistent FAA terminology is most apparent when discussing network resiliency, which is measurable through mathematical calculations and analyses based on other clear definitions.
For example, if the NAS network infrastructure is critical to operations, and a high bandwidth fiber line is accidentally cut in an Iowa cornfield, there must be “physical” diversity. This means that a separate independent line that is continuing to provide service to that area, or another available line with some measurable separation requirement is necessary, otherwise the entire system could be at risk. Likewise, if an IP storm, black hole or denial-of-service attack is present in your network and you are carrying safety-critical or efficiency-critical information, you need an observable and measurable way to guarantee that traffic gets to its destination(s).
In 2017, the Department of Transportation Inspector General report identifying FAA top management challenges stated, “Resiliency is the ability of NAS systems, services, and facilities to be able to withstand and rapidly recover from air traffic operational capacity-impacting events.” The definition provided was certainly not meant to be exhaustive, but it helps further amplify the need for exactness of terms when discussing any NAS system. Without supporting definitions and requirements, one network provider might interpret the stated ability to “withstand” as a need to propose dual independent networks. Alternatively, a second network provider might focus on the “rapidly recover” aspects and propose a singular network with more diverse circuit paths.
Is either network solution acceptable? Or, is the correct interpretation that both are necessary? The safety of the flying public demands certainty. The expectation from industry must be that any requirement set provided by the FAA has unambiguous and exhaustive definitions of all the resiliency subfactors. The definitions must include how they will be measured and how they will be used to calculate overall system resiliency. With this added clarity, the FAA and industry will jointly and confidently be better prepared to move innovations forward efficiently and safely.
Upcoming opportunities to begin to close the gaps are just ahead at key conferences such as the ATCA Annual Conference and Exhibition happening in October 2019 in Washington, D.C. But conferences alone are not adequate. The FAA and the aviation industry must come together on a variety of topics through frequent and specifically targeted outreach events designed to establish explicit definition sets for many of the innovations discussed at the symposium. The next decade of safe air travel is upon us, and it is our collective responsibility to do it at the speed of safety.