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The Canadian Automated Air Traffic System

A backbone system on the leading edge of air traffic management 

It takes a lot of ingenuity and dedication to build a complex system which simultaneously enhances safety and improves service for customers, while facilitating productivity improvements and increasing situational awareness of the front-line professionals that use it every day.

That kind of system is usually the backbone.

“At NAV CANADA, that system is the Canadian Automated Air Traffic Management System (CAATS),” says Rudy Kellar, Executive Vice President, Service Delivery. “CAATS is one of the most advanced and integrated flight data processing systems in the world, and it’s the foundation for the Company’s air traffic management system for the next quarter century.”

In use at all seven Area Control Centres in the country since December 2009, CAATS automates flight profile monitoring and extends conflict prediction and detection into non-radar airspace. It also processes and distributes flight data information to other NAV CANADA and international systems, enabling collaborative decision-making in flight planning which in turn results in operators flying preferred routes more often.

CAATS also simplifies the flight management process for air traffic controllers and other operational staff by automatically updating flight information coming from other centres, computing flight estimates and processing flight plans.

The elimination of many manual processes ‒ such as the need to verbally “hand off” aircraft ‒ improves safety by increasing the time controllers have available to focus on separating aircraft.

“The impact CAATS has had on the safety and efficiency of both our own and our customers’ operations is considerable,” says Kellar. “But we are just beginning to tap into CAATS’ full potential.”

Two steps ahead of conflict

Air traffic controllers are known for their ability to anticipate what the traffic picture in their sector will look like in the foreseeable future ‒ staying a step ahead of conflict, and backstopped by integrated conflict prediction tools built into processors on the ground and in the air.

“With the new Medium Term Conflict Detection (MTCD) feature currently being deployed, air traffic controllers will be able to peer further into the future, augmenting the current capability, and staying two steps ahead of potential conflict,” says Bill Crawley, Director, ATS System Integration.
Using a complex and automated algorithm, MTCD notifies controllers of potential conflict situations with a look-ahead window of five to 20 minutes.
Functionality is being implemented that will soon allow the controller to perform trial probes on pilot-requested route or altitude changes as well as controller-planned resolutions to ensure a conflict free clearance is issued. 
MTCD, which also augments the existing Conflict Prediction functionality that is in place for procedural airspace, is currently installed at Winnipeg, Edmonton, Montreal and Moncton ACCs above FL290, with Vancouver the next location to receive it in 2014.

“Once MTCD is fully implemented in the upper strata, we will begin looking at applications for it in lower level airspace,” says Crawley. “The great thing about the conflict detection feature in CAATS is that it enhances safety in a manner that is entirely transparent to our customers – no change in equipment or process on the flight deck is required.”

Texting: more choice, less room for error

One of the most well-known changes to CAATS, currently being phased-in, is the implementation of Controller-Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC), which supports text-based communications between pilots and controllers.

CPDLC is now in use in the Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Montreal, Moncton and Gander Flight Information Regions above Flight Level 290, with Toronto coming on line soon.

“The Canadian implementation of CPDLC represents the largest domestic roll out in the world to date and provides appropriately equipped aircraft with another option to communicate efficiently and accurately with air traffic controllers,” says Crawley.

CPDLC helps reduce frequency congestion by decreasing the need for voice communications. It also enhances safety and efficiency by using standardized messages and reducing the likelihood of read-back and hear-back errors.

NAV CANADA, in collaboration with customers, is examining opportunities to ensure that communications via CPDLC are as efficient as they can be. As a result of this, the Company is working on an enhancement that will support the automated issuance of a CPDLC welcome message to pilots that will advise them when they’ve transitioned between the airspace of two ACCs.

“The welcome message explicitly confirms which air traffic control authority the pilot will be in communication with, and the acknowledgement of the message by the pilot confirms to the controller that both parties are on the same page,” says Crawley.

Positioned to perform: ADS-C

Safety and efficiency benefits are closely intertwined with the planned, ANS-wide implementation of Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Contract (ADS-C) position reporting.

Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Contract is a surveillance technique in which aircraft automatically provide, via a data link, data derived from on board navigation and position-fixing systems, including aircraft identification and four-dimensional position.
“These geo-positioning and reporting technologies are changing the way aircraft operate over the North Atlantic, providing more opportunities for customer-preferred and efficient flight profiles,” says Crawley.

“Now, apply that to remote areas of domestic airspace, where procedural control is the norm, such as in the north, and there is a good opportunity to generate fuel savings for customers while improving safety.”

Domestic implementation of the surveillance capability will commence in 2014 with the Edmonton and Vancouver ACCs.

With better position reporting providing controllers with clearer picture of traffic, NAV CANADA will evaluate opportunities to gradually reduce separation for aircraft with the right mix of technologies.

NAV CANADA intends to use ADS-C on an interim basis, until satellite-based ADS-B surveillance comes online. A new joint venture, known as Aireon, will install Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B) receivers on a constellation of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, expanding air traffic surveillance coverage to the entire planet. The ADS-B receivers will be built into Iridium NEXT, the second generation satellite constellation that will be launched by Iridium starting in 2015 with planned use of the capability starting in 2018.

ADS-B will provide opportunities for further flight efficiencies through near real-time provision of position reports, as opposed to ADS-C which provides position reports only periodically.

Adaptability the key to leading the way

CAATS was inherently built as an adaptable system, and NAV CANADA’s ongoing investment in developing and enhancing the software over the past several years has paid dividends. . It can be customized to the specifications of an individual control centre while at the same time integrating data and exchanges from other centres.

It’s scalable, allowing for area control centres to implement the features they need most, when they need them most. Soon, the implementation of a new data distribution service will lead to further enhancements in automation and integration of flight data between NAV CANADA facilities, surveillance sources and other systems.
"What will fundamentally keep CAATS at the forefront of air traffic management systems for years to come is its adaptability and our ability to mold it to the requirements of any operation,” says Kellar. “That is made possible because of the capacity of our employees to innovate and prioritize the changes that will have a lasting and meaningful impact for our customers.”

With each enhancement implemented, NAV CANADA is incrementally improving the air traffic management environment for those coordinating the 12 million aircraft movements that occur every year through the second largest airspace in the world.

More importantly, it’s showing its commitment to find ways to deliver value to the people behind each and every one of those movements – its customers.

“Few systems are as operationally proven and reliable as CAATS” says Kellar. “It’s no wonder that it is being offered to our counterparts internationally, as NAVCANtrac.”