The Last Mile

John Croft salutes the US landmark ADS-B programme where the government got it right

When most of America is raising a toast to the New Year at the stroke of midnight on December 31 2019, Vinny Capezzuto will be celebrating for a wholly different reason – the advent of ADS-B.

Capezzuto, starting in 2006, was a key member of the government and industry team that took Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) from the drafting board to a January 1 2020, mandate. “I’m going to wrap up the old team and we‘re going to party hard,” he laughs.

Jokes aside, delivering all promised elements of ADS-B on time and on budget was the surveillance world’s equivalent of putting a man on the moon – no one thought it could be done in such a short time, if at all.

But the FAA’s team pulled it off. The ground system is complete and integrated into air traffic control system automation systems, and the US today is the only air navigation service provider that can use ADS-B to separate equipped aircraft as close as 3,600 feet on parallel approaches.

ADS-B is a success story due to the FAA’s laser focus on the desired outcome as the team converted Congress, the airline industry, general aviation, international partners and others into believers while forging essential partnerships. That buy-in did not come easy at the start. “We had massive opposition,” says Capezzuto, the FAA’s director of surveillance and broadcast services from 2006 to 2014. “You practically couldn’t please anyone.”

Yet, despite the odds of coming through on a major upgrade promise 14 years into the future, that’s exactly what the FAA orchestrated. ADS-B is one element of an air traffic control system modernisation plan, aka NextGen, that also includes new digital data communications and satellite-based navigation.

Unlike the latter two however, ADS-B is not voluntary for most airspace. “Because surveillance only works if everybody has it, the hard part was mandating something that was that far into the future,” says Russ Chew, the FAA Air Traffic Organization’s chief operating officer (COO) at that time.

In hindsight, ADS-B was successful in large part because of a perfect storm of political will, technology and pragmatic FAA executives, including Chew and FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, who were business savvy and determined not to repeat the mistakes of earlier programmes that ended unceremoniously. “Marion was carrying the message because she believed in all the ADS-B research and development work that started in the 1990s,” says Capezzuto. “Russ was a COO that came in with a business mentality, and who had worked in the airlines.”

ADS-B Enabler

Political will was ripe for ADS-B as it was a key part of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NGATS), which later evolved into NextGen. NGATS was seen as the technological solution to mounting airline delays, which were expected to only get worse with increasing traffic. Many saw the advent of ADS-B as the point in time where the FAA and the aviation community stopped talking about modernising the ATC system and began building a performance-based system. ADS-B was sometimes referred to as ‘the enabler’ of safety, efficiency and capacity in the National Airspace System (NAS).

Congress, while supportive financially, took a ‘trust but verify’ stance. “Sometimes the Transportation Department inspector general had more analysts analyzing the small FAA programmes than the programmes had analysts themselves,” says Chew.

The FAA’s track record on previous programmes made the prospect of congressional and industry support more difficult in the beginning. “Microwave Landing System (MLS) was the thing the airlines kept throwing back at us,” says Capezzuto of early meetings with industry to discuss the FAA’s ADS-B strategy. “They bought the equipment, they had airplanes sitting in the desert with MLS on board and the FAA pulled out.”

MLS was a navigation programme born in the 1970s as a higher performance replacement for the Instrument Landing System. The programme, meant to be mandated, was late, over-budget and, as the comptroller general said in a 1978 report, users were sceptical of the overall expected benefits and did not have enough input to the programme.

The FAA ultimately cancelled the programme in the early 1990s, but the negative experience left its mark.

“Because of past history, there was not a lot of comfort with the FAA saying they were going to do something big,” says Bob Pomrink, the former lead systems engineer for the ADS-B programme.

Such was the landscape in 2006 when $50 million was allotted to get the next-generation surveillance system rolling. Capezzuto recalls Blakey asking hard questions about how the money was being used.

The answers were clear but at the same time, uncertain. They had to build a team, determine a strategy and start an acquisition process for the FAA’s portion of the system – the ground network – and get moving on a rulemaking. “We got to pick the dream team – whoever I needed to get this done,” says Capezzuto.

To-Do List

The to-do list was long and responsibilities went up and down the leadership chain. At the top, Blakey had become a staunch advocate for ADS-B shortly after taking office. “When I first came to the FAA in 2002, one of the things I had come to understand from a leadership standpoint was that you’re going to be there with two catcher’s mitts,” she says. “You’re going to try to keep the game going, returning balls and trying to make things happen correctly and on time.”

From a practical standpoint, that meant limiting her appetite for new programmes. “I asked some people who were there for a longer time, including the Joint Planning and Development Office director, Charlie Keegan, and they said ‘ADS-B’,” says Blakey. “They were the people who really understood what it was going to take to get NextGen operational.”

Because of that, she developed a strong commitment to putting in place the large architecture of NextGen, the backbone of which was ADS-B. “People accused me of having ADS-B tattoos on my back,” she says, laughing.

Chew was a key interface with the RTCA Air Traffic Management Advisory Committee (ATMAC), the government-industry group that collaborated with airlines and other stakeholders on air traffic modernisation initiatives. The ATMAC was later replaced by the NextGen Advisory Committee. “His point of view with the airlines was, ‘We gotta make this happen,’” says Capezzuto. “That made all the difference.”

Chew put a variety of management tactics in place – using metrics to track progress, incentivising managers to stay on cost and schedule, and breaking down programmes into segments, each of which are more easily defined with requirements that are not as likely to change. “The other one was to more closely align the development side and the procurement side with the operational side because what would often happen was that the procurement side would finish the programme and then the operational side might say, ‘This doesn’t have knobs. I’m not going to use it,’’ says Chew.

ADS-B Rollout

Another management action that greatly aided the programme was the sharing of In-Service Decision (ISD) Authority between Chew, the COO, and Nick Sabatini, the FAA’s regulatory safety chief (AVS-1). The ADS-B rollout included a series of increasingly comprehensive ISDs, starting with non-essential services and ending with ADS-B for separation services. AVS-1 guided the programme through the rulemaking and avionics standards development, including technical standard orders. “It also assisted our international partners to have access to the FAA regulatory experts,” says Capezzuto.

Capezzuto, for his part, “was the one who kept the focus and led the group forward in meeting the commitments we had made to industry,” says Pomrink. In addition to working with the FAA and industry to develop the performance standards of the ground network and the airborne avionics, the ADS-B team had to begin developing new rules for the surveillance systems. A key element was delivering a positive cost-benefit business case for ADS-B, a case that depended on reducing the number of radar systems in the NAS. “We made this proposed reduction by collaborating with industry and the ATMAC,” says Capezzuto.

He also had to deal with the small matter of rolling out a massive ground network at breakneck speed, by traditional government standards.

An expert on radar, Capezutto knew that the acquisition schedule was daunting. The FAA wanted avionics standards completed in four years and the ground network finished in seven, moves that would give industry confidence in the programme and the ability to begin using the system well in advance of the 2020 mandate. When it came to installing radar, he knew that the legacy FAA acquisition process could take four years just to get the land for one site.

The answer was a service-based specification and contract with phased segments. The FAA issued a contract to ITT (now L3) to deploy and operate the ADS- B ground network through 2025 via an 18-year service contract. Capezzuto calls the change ‘massive’ compared to how the FAA typically handled such large contracts – by re-competing every five years.

Aircraft Equipage

Once the FAA had completed the ground infrastructure in 2014, the focus turned to getting aircraft operators to equip. With less than six years to go to the mandate, then Administrator Michael Huerta issued a ‘call to action’ to query industry on barriers to equipping. That activity led to the establishment of the government and industry Equip 2020 team that addressed technical, policy and educational barriers. The collaboration spurred the avionics industry to make more products, which in turn drove prices down.

Part of getting operators to purchase the avionics were the advanced capabilities that they would be able to access after equipping. Included in additional benefits were ADS-B In applications for which the FAA had developed, or was working on, avionics standards, through RTCA in collaboration with EUROCAE. These were the applications that airlines could implement to gain operational efficiencies and enhanced situational awareness.

Included in the 2007 ADS-B baseline were visual acquisition, visual separation on approach, basic surface traffic display, cockpit display of traffic information to assist in visual separation (CAVS), merging and spacing and a general aviation traffic alerting application. Later, the FAA funded the development of In-Trail Procedures standards, an application that is now being used in daily operations in US oceanic airspace by equipped airlines, including Hawaiian Airlines. The FAA continues to develop avionics standards for additional ADS-B-In applications through RTCA in collaboration with EUROCAE.

Today, most members of that top management from the original ADS-B programme has moved on, but their achievement remains a hallmark for an agency that needed a development and deployment win, and puts it on solid footing for the future.

“ADS-B is a key NextGen enabling technology that provides the foundation for a brand new National Airspace System,” says Dan Hicok, the FAA’s acting director of surveillance services. “2020 isn’t the end, it’s actually just the beginning.”


1 Comment

  1. I was honored to see Vinnie in action at the start and through all stages of this very successful program. He was focused, determined and dedicated and it paid off! Well done Vinnie!

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