Cloud Watching

Dave Hughes reports how the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is connecting SWIM to the Cloud

The FAA is sending its System Wide Information Management (SWIM) flight, aeronautical and weather data to the cloud via the SWIM Cloud Distribution System (SCDS) so more companies and researchers can easily access it at a considerably lower cost to the agency.

In addition to lowering the cost to the agency, SCDS lowers the barrier to entry for users by using more typical web encryption technology rather than a dedicated virtual private network to the FAA secure gateway.

“We believe that making SWIM data available on the cloud will lead to more companies and individuals using the data to create products and services, just as companies like FlightAware have already done,” says Joshua Gustin, supervisory aviation technology system specialist for the FAA’s communications, information and network programmes branch.

Gustin envisions a day when individual researchers use freely available FAA data in the cloud to create new applications that can be useful to the aviation community. Natesh Manikoth, the FAA’s chief data officer, agrees. “Innovation in air traffic management will start and end with data in the future,” he says. “A window of opportunity will be opening up with cloud access to FAA data that increases the chances that more applications that will be useful to the aviation community and others will be created.”

The FAA realises the critical importance of data as it modernises the National Airspace System (NAS) under the NextGen initiative. In the past, companies such as FlightAware – a flight-tracking data company with millions of customers – recognised the utility of FAA flight data and put it to use by creating new services. FlightAware leverages data from scores of air traffic control systems around the world, including SWIM data.

“NextGen is, in many ways, a transformation in terms of the precision, frequency and reduced latency of information being delivered to people from any area, such as Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast (ADS-B), that has higher precision and frequency of surveillance data,” says Manikoth.

Natesh Manikoth

SWIM already provides access to the majority of FAA flight, aeronautical and weather data, but it is mostly used by companies rather than individuals. However, there are some users the FAA calls “Johnny Gmails” who retrieve non-sensitive data for academic research and similar purposes.

There is a lengthy process involved for a company or individual to gain access to SWIM data. Now that SWIM’s user pool has grown from 30 to 180, with 100 more users in the process of joining, it is becoming difficult and expensive for the FAA to keep up with demand using the specialised links involved.

In addition, there is an extensive onboarding process for companies to sign up for SWIM data; that can be greatly simplified in a self-service cloud environment. Moving SWIM to the cloud with SCDS will provide this self-service platform.

Cloud Service

SWIM contractor Harris is currently developing SCDS on an Amazon-provided cloud service. SWIM cloud users will be able to manage their own subscriptions and change the flow of data they receive via an automated self-provisioning function. The flight data provided will not include sensitive information such as the location of military aircraft. However, it will include only publicly accessible, non-sensitive information that is already available – but difficult to use – outside of SWIM. The SWIM programme has also redesigned its NAS Service Registry and Repository to make it much more user friendly. The update took effect November 1, 2017, and features a new information finder that helps users quickly locate services of interest.

Chris Pressler

One of the major accomplishments of the FAA’s SWIM policy has been standardising FAA data on to one format, according to Chris Pressler, the FAA’s lead engineer on SWIM. Pressler, who is working to help make SWIM data available in the cloud, says every system in the FAA speaks its own language: Traffic Flow Management (TFM) speaks TFM; En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) speaks ERAM; Airport Surface Detection Equipment, Model X (ASDE-X) speaks ASDE-X; and so on.

As part of putting the SWIM policy in practice, the FAA began to move to having all of these systems learn to speak in Extensible Markup Language (XML). While there are more advanced data formats available, Pressler says the big advantage of XML is, “everyone on the planet can read it”.

The FAA works with ICAO and the European Union, among others, to create the aviation versions of XML that have become standards for the exchange of information over SWIM: the Flight Information Exchange Model, the Aeronautical Information Exchange Model and the Weather Information Exchange Model.

“The next step of moving all of this to the cloud should allow the FAA to deliver its standardised data to interested users faster, better and cheaper,” Pressler says. “Users will be able to be more selective on the data they want to use, so they don’t have to download terabytes [TB] worth of information they don’t need into the own computer networks. This will save money and provide faster and better data access to users.”

Data Load

Initially, the FAA will keep the big users of SWIM, such as airlines, on a direct feed until the cloud service is up and running and all kinks are worked out. Then some SWIM users might also switch to the cloud, if that makes the most sense for the way they use the data. By letting the cloud offer users a self-provisioning function for only the data they need rather than taking it all as a direct feed, airlines won’t have to tax their IT systems with 4 TB of incoming data a day (for comparison, the Hubble Space Telescope generates about 10 TB of data per year).

The FAA recently formed the SWIM Industry-FAA Team (SWIFT) and is holding collaboration workshops with operation and technology specialists from airlines, industry and professional associations. Gustin says the FAA realises it can flood users with data; the agency wants to refine the flow to give users exactly what they need. SWIM users also are interested in doing more post-operations analysis to answer questions on why things happened on particular days, so they can make improvements. SWIM is simply a stream of FAA data with no archiving, but SWIM in the cloud allows data to be archived by users for post-operations analysis.

In the future, the cloud also will help post-operations analysis inside the FAA. Now, after-action analysis of NAS events is reliant on flight, aeronautical and weather data stored in several places. With SWIM in the cloud, the same data can be centrally stored for easy access in the FAA’s mission-support domain – which is different from the flight-critical operational network that runs the NAS. Pressler says this will free many FAA groups from the need to maintain a hardware infrastructure; instead, they can focus on their main job: data analysis and services.

Since just about all of the FAA’s air traffic control and air traffic management systems are data driven, reducing the cost of IT infrastructure will save the agency money on programmes across the board, Pressler says. The thinking is that once users realise they can create what they need cheaply, they will be off to the races to create new apps. Gustin adds that the FAA may then need to figure out a place on the web where such independently developed apps reside.