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Ears to the ground and beyond

Date: 14th August 2014
Topic: Monthly Features
Tags: WiMAX, WiMAX Forum, ConvergEx

Toulouse_airport_copy.jpgGood communications are fundamental for effective air traffic management (ATM) to keep the civil aviation sector running smoothly. Effective communications are critical and growing bandwidth demands mean new solutions are needed. Tim Guest reports

Today’s ATM systems rely heavily on narrowband systems for ground-to-air communications, as well as costly wireline infrastructure delivering connectivity for key ground-based stakeholders. The exchange of data between aircraft and the ground and between ground operatives and airport buildings requires bandwidth and increasingly more capable communications to work. Legacy systems must evolve and new systems need to be introduced.

One system being proposed is AeroMACS – Aeronautical Mobile Airport Communication System. In October 2013, Declan Byrne, president of the WiMAX Forum, told Land Mobile that: "The largest and most significant new market segment, which has exclusively adopted WiMAX technology, is aviation”. His words are given fresh impetus in a white paper: Enabling the next generation in ATM with AeroMACS, from Senza Fili Consulting. It forecasts adoption of AeroMACS as the next generation standard in ATM. The paper also suggests the AeroMACS interface will become widely adopted within airports, for ground vehicle movement and for aircraft on the ground.

AeroMACS, which operates in an exclusive, licensed aviation 5 GHz band, supports both mobile and fixed connectivity and benefits from the WiMAX IEEE 802.16 standard with its established competitive vendor base. The report’s author Monica Paolini says that: ‘AeroMACS is a new wireless air interface that provides aircraft and ground infrastructure with the broadband connectivity needed to support a new generation of aircraft and an expanding range of ATM applications.’

She adds that: ‘AeroMACS is one of the three core technologies of the Future Communication Infrastructure (FCI) framework, which combines the vision of the FAA’s [Federal Aviation Authority] Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) in the US and Europe’s Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR).’

Land Mobile spoke with Nick Kuhn, ‎CEO at ConvergEX Technologies, which is involved in the AeroMACS space, and Declan Byrne, to learn about the latest developments.

AeroMACS_BigPicture_14070.jpgLand Mobile: What are the main contenders for next-generation ground communications for ATM at airports and is AeroMACS a foregone conclusion?
Nick Kuhn: There are a great number of possibilities. If your question is referring to Tetra as one contender, many of the deployments are in parallel to emergency services infrastructures, and are based on older technologies. Tetra, as it stands today, exists at a different frequency to AeroMACS and transmits at a fraction of the throughput. WiMAX has a number of significant advantages, such as its ‘quantum leap’ bandwidth capabilities in a proven mature and stable technology in comparison to latest 3GPP, especially in frequency diversity. It also has the ability to be deployed quickly with minimal disruption to the operating environment in comparison to fixed technologies like fibre-optics.

It’s also bandwidth scalable offering guaranteed and differentiated QoS profiles that are wider than Wi-Fi’s possibilities, and its embedded security supersedes traditional Wi-Fi protocols. So, we may have competing but in no way substituting technologies and, in my mind, the balance sheet of assets of each competing technology will not match the value that AeroMACS will bring. Now that we have the proven ability to move from 40-bit to 40-Megabit throughput, we will see unprecedented demand for this capability; and WiMAX has the ability to deliver on this requirement with unparalleled agility and flexibility.

Declan Byrne: In spite of the fact that TETRA is a common mobile radio communications infrastructure used throughout Europe, it is still used largely to meet the mobile radio needs of public safety, utilities and other enterprises that provide voice and data communications. For it to become more prevalent in ATM, it would have to first go through the standard-setting process that AeroMACS has.

In order to meet the rigorous safety requirements, any equipment or technology standards that are deployed in aircraft have to go through a long research and development cycle. Specifications for these technologies, performance benchmarks and standard criteria are developed by the aviation community working with the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). 

What we have today is a three-pronged approach to aircraft communications, particularly for air traffic control applications.  One is based on HF, the second is VHF radio and the third is based on satellite. The narrow-band HF data rate is typically 300 kbps, VHF 8-10kbps, and satellite 2400kbps. As aircraft become more sophisticated, the industry is seeking more automation for ground controls as well as ATM, and on board the aircraft itself. To enable that, we need much higher speed communication systems so that information can be shared between aircraft and the ground. So, unlike other sectors, aviation doesn’t have the ability to arbitrarily chase technologies. It takes the aviation industry about five to seven years to establish technology standards. Complex, multi-lateral agreements, rules and regulations have to be signed by UN countries across the board. For this reason, AeroMACS is a foregone conclusion, in our opinion.

AeroMACS_Apps_140701.jpgLM: What advantages do you see AeroMACS bringing to the aviation industry in terms of connectivity, cost-effectiveness and efficiency?
NK: For ubiquitous data to be transmitted in an environment that requires mobility as a cornerstone, it’s a mandate that stable and scalable wireless technologies are required. Systems must also be mature, as these bodies cannot afford to contemplate technologies not broadly and soundly tested and governed.

WiMAX provides that assurance with well-governed standards-based deployment profiles and environments, with institutionalised bodies and structures defining protocols to deal with the specific nuances for the aviation industry. The ability to extract commercial benefit from existing technologies being adapted to meet the aviation industry’s exacting requirements is also fundamental.

DB: The ICAO specifically chose WiMAX as its standard technology platform in 2007 for numerous reasons. AeroMACS was launched due to the many advantages offered – including the fact that it is a proven, cost-effective technology that delivers high throughput. The industry had also considered Wi-Fi, but this did not have the communication range needed to cover the whole airport, and presents a host of security issues. AeroMACS meets all of the industry’s key requirements in terms of connectivity, throughput and reliability. It works effectively in the 5 GHz band, which is dedicated spectrum for mobile aeronautical air traffic management use worldwide.

LM: How many AeroMACS trials are currently underway and when will we see the first commercial deployments?
NK: There have been a number of very well funded and resourced trials conducted in the US and Europe, and in the Far East where they have already proven the case, as has recently been demonstrated by the ADCC in China, with Japan soon to follow. There have been a number of minor factors to consider in hardware readiness to meet the mass production scales, but I anticipate mass deployment to be within six months, with a number of early adopters being ready with an appropriate solution to meet the exacting standards required.

DB: Trials such as those conducted in France at the Toulouse Airport, in the US at the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport and the Sendai test bed in Japan have confirmed the potential of AeroMACS. Vendors and aviation authorities expect to see early deployments by 2016. By 2022 we expect to see full deployments, with more airlines installing AeroMACS on their aircraft and more countries hosting AeroMACS in their airports.

LM: Is the WiMAX vendor ecosystem competitive enough to offer a wide range of cost-effective equipment choices for the widest range of ground aviation applications?
NK: As with any emerging technology, there are first movers who make large investments at the outset of new deployments. However, there has been great care taken not to travel too far from the WiMAX 802.16e - 2009 standard which already satisfies the technical requirements of the aviation community. Therefore, there is less Non Recurring Engineering (NRE) cost investment in the deployment of WiMAX as the chosen protocol.

DB: Alongside traditional manufacturers such as Gemtek, Sequans and GCT Semiconductor, a host of new entrants are developing and delivering AeroMACS solutions. The new entrants include familiar names such as Hitachi, Thales, Selex, Siemens and General Electric. The Avionics industry is becoming involved as well including companies such as Honeywell, Rockwell Collins and Teledyne. 

LM: Which bodies are behind the uptake and positioning of AeroMACS for this sector and how are issues of standards, certification and interoperability being addressed?
NK: Fundamentally, there has been significant work done by a guiding coalition consisting of the FAA, AT4Wireless, ICAO, Eurocontrol and the WiMAX Forums Aviation Working Group (among others) to design a set of standardised features and performance requirements. These have been encapsulated within the realms of the Minimum Operating Standards (MOPS), Protocol Implementation Conformance Statement (PICS), Certification Requirement Status List (CSRL), Minimum Aviation System Performance Specification (MASPS), but ultimately within the ICAO efforts to produce the Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPS) document. This does not contemplate any other efforts made by other ANSP’s for individual deployments, which are envisaged to follow at least a similar, if not, identical standards.

DB: These issues, which are first addressed by standard-setting bodies such as AEEC, and the relevant US and European standard setting organisations such as RTCA and EuroCAE, have now also passed to smaller associations (like the WiMAX Forum), working in tandem with the aviation community as a whole. Since AeroMACS is an enabling technology, the industry is now looking at how this enabler will offer such things as better efficiencies, larger customers, reduced turnaround time at the airport, higher safety. Government mandates happen in our industry, but only rarely – for example, satellite communication on aircraft is mandated when flying over the ocean. I do think that mandate-setting for AeroMACS could happen in Europe, since VHF communication does not have enough capacity. Similarly in China, there might be a mandate – since they are somewhat ahead of the curve when it comes to AeroMACS trials. It will be interesting to watch how the technology continues to be rolled out in the industry. 

LM: How many companies are participating in AeroMACS and is the membership of the Aviation Working Group within the WiMAX Forum a comprehensive reflection of the AeroMACS gene pool?
NK: I think it’s fair to say that the first movers and early adopters are a fair representation of interoperable organisations that are collaborating to position a comprehensive deployment of the AeroMACS technology. We are banking on a good critical mass of interested parties to satisfy the requirements for the initial marquee deployments. Naturally, this is not a static position and I envisage competition to follow pretty fast on recognition of potential. Many parties are standing by on the sideline watching how things develop. Outside of the published physical membership, I have seen keen interest from non-members at the WMF AeroMACS events.

DB: Membership in the Working Group definitely gives vendors in the space an edge over non-members. As a very well-represented consortium, these providers can learn from one another and build capabilities across the board. At the Brussels event we did earlier this year, the attendees represent the key leadership among vendors, international organisations such as the FAA and Eurocontrol, and experts in airport surface communications. We will continue to expand this group and encourage collaboration.

Graphics courtesy of Senza Fili


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