The term flight deck integration refers to the integration of aviation systems, technologies, and processes external to the aircraft with the systems, technologies, and processes of the flight deck. This page focuses on the integration of air traffic control (ATC) systems, technologies, and processes.
The cockpit/ATC integration aims to achieve better interconnections between pilot, aircraft, and ATC.
Issues with the current ATC system
Presently, the majority of ATC operations direct aircraft movements by radio communications between controller and flight crew.
The predominant use of voice communications gives rise to a number of issues, including the following:1
- Radio communications are inherently vulnerable to error. Accurate radio communications rely on the transmitting party accurately stating the message, and the receiving party listening to and accurately interpreting the message.
- Resources for radio communications (particularly frequencies) are limited.
- When multiplied across a large number of aircraft, the nature of the two-way dialog required to issue and confirm ATC instructions means that a controller’s workload is high, compared to the communications component of the flight crew’s workload.
- Congestion on ATC frequencies results in communication errors, particularly due to blocked transmissions (which themselves only generate further congestion).
- Congestion and periods of high demand also involve an even greater workload for the controller, particularly where readbacks must be corrected and transmissions repeated.
- Certain types of communications, particularly communications involving multiple numbers or frequencies, are commonly subject to errors. The same is true of complicated taxi instructions.
- Likewise, many ATC communications are long, complex, and contain multiple pieces of information. Where that is the case, there can be a tendency on the part of the receiving flight crew to listen selectively, meaning that they receive and process only those parts of the transmission they consider particularly important, and may not receive and process other parts.
Examples of flight deck integrated ATC
Controller-Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC) is a communications system allowing ATC to communicate with flight crew by data link.
CPDLC allows controllers to issue common clearance directions, such as flight level assignments and constraints, frequencies, route changes and deviations, speed restrictions, and requests for information. The flight crew can then respond.
Messages are received and displayed as text, and may be written and sent, using an interface within the cockpit.
A datalink unit on an Airbus A330 aircraft, showing flight level information.2
FANS-1/A / FANS-2/B Systems
The Future Air Navigation Systems (FANS) are CPDLC systems. FANS-1, developed by Boeing, uses satellite based Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) communications. The Airbus variant is FANS-A. Later variants of the systems are known as FANS-2 and FANS-B.
FANS was developed to control aircraft subject to procedural control, where they are outside ATC radar coverage, and permits CPDLC text messages between controllers and flight crew. It is used primarily on oceanic routes.
Maastricht UAC ATN-CPDLC system
Eurocontrol uses CPDLC technology for the control of the upper airspace (exceeding FL245) of Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands.
Benefits of flight deck integrated ATC
Some of the benefits of flight deck integrated ATC systems include the following:
- Enhanced flight crew situational awareness.
- Shift of workload from controller to pilot. For example, controllers can issue sequence positions and pilots can be left to maintain their sequencing without further controller direction.
- Alleviates miscommunication problems.
- Improved efficiency and system capacity by allowing a reduction in controller time spent on voice communications, as well as a reduction in the requirement to repeat missed messages or correct errors in read-backs.
- Improved efficiency and system capacity by reducing frequency hand-ever communications.
- Data-link communication can act as a back-up to traditional radio communication.
- Can build in feedback protocols that confirm receipt of the message by the recipient.3
- The availability of preformatted and standardised messages promotes accuracy and consistency.
- Digital communications are (generally) more reliable than analogue communications.
Challenges of flight deck integrated ATC
Additionally, flight deck integrated ATC may pose the following challenges:
- There is potential for problems where, because of automatic data uplink, pilots do not immediately detect errors or conflicts where.
- There are various issues to be overcome in terms of training pilots to use or transition to new CPDLC systems.
- The need to review and control transmitted information adds to pilot workload. There is also the possibility of overloading users with too much visual information.4
- Where information is represented visually, there is added potential for misinterpretation of that information.
- There is a need for communications procedures as between controllers or members of a flight crew where the communication is visual or otherwise silent.
1 See discussion in K. Kerns, 'Air-Traffic Control/Flight Deck Integration', in J. A. Wise et al (eds), Handbook of Aviation Human Factors (2nd ed.). CRC Press, Boca Raton, 2010.
2 Image by Sempre Volando, 5 February 2010, available on the Wikimedia Commons at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:A330_DCDU.jpg.
3 See E. Henry, 'ATC/Flight Deck Integration', RTCA SC-189/EUROCAE WG-53 Position Paper: Air Traffic Services Safety and Interoperability Requirements: SG3_PP17, 23 June 1999, Federal Aviation Administration, p. 4.
4 See Henry, ibid.