Aviation Data is Already Big Data

Mark Denicuolo, Director of Policy & Performance, Federal Aviation Administration
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Mark Denicuolo, Director of Policy & Performance, Federal Aviation Administration

Identifying safety and efficiency trends is an important part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) mission. To find these trends, we look at what is happening tactically and strategically in the National Airspace System (NAS). Individually, the various components of a flight may offer a tactical view of what’s happening in the airspace. However, when you combine all the various information together, you get a flight story or a holistic view of not only one flight, but of overall trends in the NAS. “Big data” analysis is the key to creating that story and identifying trends.

Data has been a part of the aviation industry for a long time, but “big data”—or volumes and volumes of data—has become the norm and it’s creating some significant challenges. For air traffic control in the FAA, data comes from a variety of sources including radar, flight plan, voice, and weather data just to name a few. Within that data is valuable intelligence and the ability to create a “flight story.” But that intelligence is not accessible unless the data can be managed i.e., stored, processed, normalized, and integrated. The FAA is starting to use cloud technology to help integrate the different types of data into a flight story which can be analyzed collectively from different aspects of the national aerospace system, from safety or efficiency perspectives, resulting in better decisions.

Achieving the integration simplifies analysis and evaluation, making safety and efficiency assessments faster and facilitating changes needed to improve overall system efficiency. One of the most important components to air traffic control is voice. It’s critically important to be able to sync the voice data with the radar and weather data. To improve data management of voice data, FAA is evaluating the use of voice recognition software to help analyze the high volumes of voice data and associate a specific command with a specific segment of flight. Being able to associate conditions and actions is critical to identifying changes that would improve safety and efficiency.

  ​Individually, the various components of a flight may offer a tactical view of what’s happening in the airspace. However, when you combine all the various information together, you get a flight story or a holistic view of not only one flight, but of overall trends in the NAS. “Big data” analysis is the key to creating that story and identifying trends 

Real time data is also highly desirable, but the volume of data the FAA collects is enormous. For example, radar data is received from hundreds of different radar systems across the U.S. creating an enormous challenge to real-time integration. Real-time data from individual radars can be analyzed, but full integration is very labor intensive. Potentially, cloud computing and processing will allow us to more quickly integrate surface and airborne radars along with the flight plan and voice data for use in trend analysis.

Exciting Trends

Other trends that are affecting the aviation industry are the challenges accompanying new entrants into the airspace such as unmanned aerial systems, drones, and commercial space exploration. As exciting as it seems, many forget that the new vehicles must first move from the ground through airspace occupied by airplanes with people on them. The significance of the challenges is also building as the sheer number of space launches is expected to increase rapidly over the next several years. And the types of vehicles being launched are going to change as new entrants may target sub-orbital and orbital altitudes. Microsatellites, changing air travel for passengers, and more and more launch and flight profiles will increase the volume and the complexity of data making it harder to create the “flight story”. The aviation industry needs to determine how to integrate all of these components—and new data and standard data—with the least impact to the airlines and air travel.

Leveraging the cloud and cross-platform aviation analytics is key to making information available to a wide variety of users and analysts in facility management. So much data can carry a wealth of intelligence especially when analysis can be conducted across data sources to identify trends and large scale changes. Instead of focusing only on individual flights, aviation can look at trends over long periods of time and compare different aspects of operations against each other. When something happens in one area—using big data— an analysis can be conducted to look for an underlying contributing factors and reactions can be planned accordingly.

For Upcoming CIOs

To best serve and provide infrastructure and technologies to support the aviation community, both the infrastructure to house the data and the supporting technologies to analyze the data are important. Aviation also needs advanced analytics and the ability to look at different underlying factors that impact safety or efficiency or a combination of those factors. Tools that can mine the reams and reams of data will be extremely beneficial. The future is coming fast and what was once science-fiction is just around the corner.

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