Sammies finalist helped move FAA from ground radar to GPS to track planes

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On January 1st, a revolution occurred in how the FAA tracks airplanes aloft. That’s when more than 100,000 planes switched to use of the Global Positioning System instead of the ground radars in place for decades. The FAA’s Acting Group Manager of Communications, Information and Network Programs David Gray was instrumental in making this happen, and he’s a finalist in this year’s Service to America Medals program. He joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin to discuss.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Gray, good to have you on.

David Gray: Thanks Tom. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Tom Temin: Having had this all happen was kind of tough when just a couple of months later most of aviation ground to a halt and they can’t even be using it because they’re on flying?

David Gray: Well, I mean, COVID has had such an impact on the aviation industry, traffic levels are down. I think if there’s a blessing from an ADS-B standpoint, it’s that the airlines and pilots who were equipping for our deadline had already done the work. And so coming in March was a whole lot better than if it had come in November. That said, we’ve still seen surprisingly high equipment installation rates for folks who didn’t have to equip by January but still see benefits in the technology coming up. So, yes it’s been a huge hit for aviation. But it could have been worse, certainly.

Tom Temin: All right. And you mentioned ADS-B, the name of the program, what does that stand for and tell us what it does that you got everybody to install and use?

David Gray: Yes, it stands for automatic dependent surveillance broadcast, great engineering name there that tells you a lot about what the technology is. But at a high level, it’s a foundational technology for the modernization of the FAA’s infrastructure. It takes, as you said, the accuracy of the GPS network and applies it to aviation. So the same kind of accuracy that you get for your cell phone where you can see which side of the street you’re walking on, we’re able to get that same kind of accuracy and apply it in aviation. So it gives air traffic controllers better data in more places more frequently and with better accuracy. We refer to all that as something called ADS-B Out. And knowing that precise real time position of an aircraft is key to run in the safest, most efficient airspace system in the world. Beyond that, and people being equipped and broadcasting this information creates an environment where the position information for that aircraft is freely available to other aircraft in the airspace. So, in the past, I’ve always been surprised to learn that most pilots, they have to create and maintain a three dimensional sort of mental picture of all the aircraft in their vicinity, based on the radio traffic that they hear between air traffic controllers and other aircraft, they have to create that and maintain, it’s very mentally taxing. But now an aircraft can be equipped to not only provide their information to air traffic control, but they can go beyond those basic requirements. So the pilot can see essentially the same picture as an aircraft controller, and we refer to that as ADS-B In. And then pilots can also get some special functionality in their equipment so they can see free information from the FAA about weather and what’s referred to aeronautical information. So for instance, they can see areas where there might be thunderstorms that they should steer clear of, or whether there are any notices that are relevant to their flight. Lots of stories from pilots about how much difference it makes to see nearby aircraft, weather and aeronautical information right in the cockpit. I mean, the bottom line is that ADS-B gives better data to air traffic controllers, it increases situational awareness to pilots, and that all makes aviation safer.

Tom Temin: I imagine Arthur Godfrey probably would have wished he’d had this if he’d been around the fly nowadays. And in your citation, it mentions the work that you did among the many stakeholders, the pilots, the airplane builders, I guess, the controllers, and many, probably even Congress. What was the more difficult part of this getting the technology established or getting everyone to buy in and get with the program?

David Gray: Yeah, it’s a great question, Tom. When you’re in the middle of it, establishing a nationwide service based infrastructure to provide ADS-B data to over 200 air traffic and facilities throughout the United States and its territories. I mean, that’s a major undertaking, and the FAA finished it in 2014. And it was only seven years from the time we awarded a contract to develop the technology tested, deployed and have a fully operational nationwide service. But you have to remember that aviation is a global industry. So the equipment that an airline uses in the US also have to work everywhere in the world. So there was a global effort to establish and adopt common and interoperable standards. Then once we had those, we told the industry what equipment they would need 10 years before they required to have it installed. And then we had to work consistently over those 10 years with stakeholders throughout the aviation ecosystem to end up with over 100,000 aircraft equipped in the US by the deadline.

Tom Temin: These are mostly airliners?

David Gray: Well, no actually, in the US, there’s a 6,000 to 7000 US registered commercial airplanes, and then there’s about 160,000 general aviation aircraft. These are some aircraft that individuals own and operate based on sort of who the user is. I mean, it involves the entire supply chain, including aircraft manufacturers, equipment manufacturers, equipment installers, dispatchers pilots, in the US and across the world. So thousands of kinds of aircraft, and every one of them needs some level of certification to be ready. So there were lots of what we call barriers to getting aircraft equip. So all in all, I think you knew where the answer was going. But I would say that staying in lockstep with all of those stakeholders in the aviation industry over a decade was harder than actually installing the equipment at the FAA.

Tom Temin: What about the controllers? We mentioned them briefly, but did it cause them to have to change their procedures and go through retraining? Because that’s a group that really is central to all of this.

David Gray: Yeah, training is an essential part of the role that any of our actors play, the controllers and the pilots. But I would say the biggest change was really on the aircraft side because pilots have to have modernized piece of equipment on their aircraft to fly through most controlled airspace in the United States. This is generally around our busiest airports and in higher altitudes. So something like ADS-B is a big deal for both airlines and aircraft owners. So we took the approach of leading by example at the FAA, we committed to a multi billion dollar program and began deploying our equipment before we asked anything of our industry partners. And then 10 years before the aircraft had to be equipped, we were clear about the equipment that would be required. And here’s the key — we followed through on that plan. We delivered on time, on budget and we held our industry partners accountable to be ready on time as well.

Tom Temin: And let me ask you this — suppose I’ve got a 1977 Beechcraft and I don’t really feel like putting in a bunch of expensive new gear so I’ll stick with the radar. How does the old system and the new, the ADS-B coexist and interoperate?

David Gray: Depends on where you fly as to whether you have to have the equipment. So if you’re going to fly in the airspace where ADS-B is required, you got to have the equipment. But there are lots of places where you could tootle around and make that decision to keep your old equipment. So to ensure the highest levels of safety the FAA has got an extensive process to assess and manage risk, international airspace system. And part of that is ensuring that we maintain appropriate levels of redundancy and systems that complement our preferred technology. So we’re going to maintain a network of our traditional radar systems to complement the new preferred source of ADS-B. So if that ADS-B equipment fails on an aircraft, those other systems and procedures are used to ensure the safety of the pilots and their passengers. So controllers can still do their jobs. Pilots can still fly where they need to fly. There are processes and procedures for all of that.

Tom Temin: And by the way, what is your own background? Are you a pilot, an engineer — who are you?

David Gray: Yeah, I got my education in the engineering field, and have been lucky enough to work with the FAA, basically, throughout my career in different roles of contractor and federal employee. But I come at things from an engineering background. I haven’t had the fortune to be able to work on my pilot’s license, but I have worked really closely with pilots and controllers throughout the years. So haven’t quite made the honorary club of getting my wings. Aviation is so cool. I mean, airplanes actually fly, you know?

Tom Temin: Yeah, I know. I’ve been on them for about 2 million miles myself. And so what comes next? I mean, ADS-B is part of the general Next Gen effort at the FAA. And so what is the next step here?

David Gray: When you’re in the middle of it a multi year goal like establishing ADS-B as the preferred surveillance source for aviation in the US — I mean, that can see like a goal in and of itself sometimes. But the reality is that that is really just the beginning. So the FAA refers to ADS-B as a transformational technology because it creates possibilities for new ways of doing business that are safer and more efficient. So that’s really what’s next is building on this foundation to deliver more benefits to the aviation community. And we’ve got some things that we’re trying out right now. The increased accuracy and update rate of ADS-B will allow air traffic controllers to apply more efficient separation standards. And this will help reduce congestion and delays in some of our busiest airspace. And we begun work on that in the airspace around Boston in Seattle, and we expect to expand from there. ADS-B is also allowing for innovation and using satellites to receive and deliver surveillance data to air traffic controllers in remote areas or over the ocean where it’s never been available before. And we begun evaluating those kinds of innovations with a trial between Florida and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean airspace. And then one of the world’s largest airlines is committed to equipping a substantial number of their aircraft with air equipment that goes beyond those basic ADS-B broadcast requirements, and to receive and display that data to their pilots. And we’re working with them on how their pilots can use ADS-B data to manage airports more efficiently. This will reduce delays and make aviation more environmentally friendly. And frankly, as with any transformational technology, I expect there’ll be ways to use ADS-B data that we haven’t even thought of yet.

Tom Temin: Well, I can’t wait to see the update to my flight radar 24 wrap.

David Gray: Absolutely. They’re integrating ADS-B data into that already. You should actually be able to see the fact that it’s ADS-B data on those airplanes that you’re tracking.

Tom Temin: Good enough. David Gray is acting group manager of Communications Information and Network programs at the FAA. Thanks so much for joining me.

David Gray: It’s been a pleasure Tom. Thank you.

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