Think back to the first iPhone. It's positively quaint. Maximum 16 gigabytes of memory. A two-megapixel camera. A single speaker. No front camera.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration runs on a telecommunications system five years older than that. And while the iPhone, twenty-some versions later, stands as an icon of how to improve a technology over time, the FAA's network is much the same as it was when it booted up in 2002.
It's time for an upgrade, and the FAA thinks so too. The agency is looking to replace the current system, the FAA telecommunications infrastructure, with something called the FAA Enterprise Network Services Program — a commercial infrastructure that will use emerging and more secure technologies. Two Raytheon Technologies businesses — Raytheon Intelligence & Space and Collins Aerospace — are teaming to pursue the contract.
What the FAA envisions — and what Raytheon Technologies is prepared to deliver — is much more than a simple system update. It's a total overhaul that could drastically improve aviation for everyone involved. Here’s how.
Real-time decisions, informed by AI
The new system will incorporate today’s and tomorrow’s modern technology including artificial intelligence, machine learning, cloud-based systems and the latest in enterprise networking solutions.
“The FAA’s next-generation system is much more than a telecommunications upgrade, and that’s reflected in the program’s name change and use of the term ‘enterprise network,’” according to Nicole Gates, Raytheon Intelligence & Space FENS capture manager. “In the past, there was a lot of moving data from point A to point B…but now the FAA wants to make that data more meaningful, using big-data analytics to provide information that can help drive better, real-time decisions, both tactically and strategically.”
Collins Aerospace, another Raytheon Technologies’ business, is teamed with Raytheon Intelligence & Space on this pursuit and will provide network services and information management services.
Collins is the largest private network provider serving the aviation community. The company’s ARINC Global Network securely and reliably connects more than 21,000 aircraft and more than 2,000 aviation industry participants, enabling a seamlessly connected ecosystem. Every day, more than 60 million messages are delivered over this network.
“Having access to information is key to streamlining operations throughout the airspace,” said Gene Hayman, director of Government Programs for Collins Aerospace’s Information Management Services portfolio. “Modernizing the FAA’s network will enable a more data-centric connected ecosystem allowing integration of new capabilities while maintaining the safety of the U.S airspace.”
In addition to its expertise in building and maintaining a global, private network, Collins also is experienced in information management services. The company’s Operations Center provides mission critical and safety critical network, messaging, and cybersecurity support.
In the U.S., the new FAA infrastructure will support critical National Airspace System services like air and ground control voice communication, radar, data and flight services.
“By using similar tools, better data and integrated data, better tactical and strategic decisions can be made throughout the entire aviation ecosystem in the FAA whether it’s in the FAA Command Center, operations or on the business side,” Gates said.
Gates compared the FAA’s current network infrastructure to “one big ball of yarn” with every single system having a “string” threaded into another system — point to point.
“The FAA is looking to move to more of a circle, where everything is integrated,” Gates said. “That way you can talk to other air traffic applications more directly. Once you become connected like that, you can then apply the power of big data for better decision-making. It really opens the aperture a lot.”
The current “ball of yarn” system creates challenges when it comes to cyber protections, too.
A more secure network
“When the current telecommunications infrastructure was built almost 20 years ago, cybersecurity wasn't near the top of the heap of concerns,” said Jon Check, RI&S senior director, Cyber Protection Solutions. “Now, it is, and when the FAA modernizes its network, they will get to build in cybersecurity from the very beginning, instead of it being bolted on like a fire escape afterwards."
According to Check, anything that could impact or degrade the ability of these systems to talk to each other presents significant safety risks.
“The FENS network is the backbone of the infrastructure that supports the secure communications and operations of the National Airspace System,” Check said. “It’s really critical to air travel and safety. If the NAS isn’t functioning, then you don't have planes flying.”
Raytheon Intelligence & Space offers prior expertise in integrating global, mission-critical enterprise networks, including the GPS Next-Generation Operational Control System and the Joint Polar Satellite System Common Ground System, according to Gates. The company’s experience on programs like these, he said, will allow Raytheon Intelligence & Space to help the FAA introduce new applications in a network environment with a rapid innovation life cycle and stringent availability and cybersecurity demands.
“We are going to reduce the complexity, eliminating duplication of systems, and we’ll have standard services across the enterprise,” Check said. “It will help ensure that you secure those things that really matter and avoid spending money on things that aren't necessary. It will improve the FAA's ability to focus on what is mission critical.”
A resilient network for a remote workforce
Not only will FENS support the FAA’s operational mission, keeping the National Airspace safe and planes flying, the systems will provide normal, day-to-day business services like email, payroll and internet
“The stronger networking capacity and tools will support the FAA’s distributed, remote and virtual workforce,” Gates said. “The network will ensure uninterrupted communications with resiliency and redundancy. In the case of natural disasters, like a hurricane, FENS will remain operational, allowing you to change course almost instantaneously.”
A scalable, flexible footing for the future
The modernization effort will provide other benefits, including flexibility and scalability, making it easier to expand and grow as the FAA’s requirements evolve. Much like the smartphone example, FENS will iteratively update as new technologies come online.
“The program will continuously modernize the FAA’s telecommunications network, improving its survivability, reliability, business continuity, and upgradeability,” Check said. “We’re not going to replace it one time, and be done. We’ll be continuously upgrading; we’re going to modernize and keep modernizing.”
The National Airspace is open 24/7, and the FAA works around the clock.
“They need a network and partner who will be with them every step, working out any issues, anytime so there’s never any downtime,” Gates said.
“The FENS provider must have an architecture that solves the FAA’s need today as well as tomorrow,” Gates said. “It’s important to develop solutions that will keep pace and grow with the FAA. That’s something we offer.”