As the Space Coast looks to regain altitude, the ambitious Florida NextGen Test Bed seeks to make the grade with flying colors. The future of aviation, plus a measure of regional economic recovery, could be at stake.
Famed American inventor Alexander Graham Bell, who created the first practical telephone, was also credited with saying, “When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.”
Fortuitously for Florida's Super Region, back in 2006, officials at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, along with Lockheed Martin and a host of other aviation industry leaders, didn't heed those words. While at the time there was mounting concern about the future economic health of the Space Coast, given the impending end of the Space Shuttle program, their sights were set forward at another opportunity: bringing the National Airspace System up to speed.
There was no time to look back, just ahead.
In Volusia County, part of the solution is the Florida NextGen Test Bed, originally established in 2008 and last November doubled in size (to 10,000 square feet) by the Federal Aviation Administration. Operating through a partnership among the FAA, Embry-Riddle and Daytona Beach International Airport, the Test Bed contract is valued up to $50 million through 2014.
And it offers potential technological and economic boons.
For starters, the Test Bed allows the federal government to take advantage of university and private-sector expertise in developing and testing concepts and technologies in what's called Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen. In simplest terms, NextGen is a multibillion-dollar initiative to transition the nation’s air traffic control system from a radar-based system to a satellite-based system. In total, the system might not be in place until 2025—with the Test Bed designed to help ensure that will happen.
Essentially, NextGen will make it easier and safer to fly—enabling more than double the number of flight plans to be processed and utilizing nearly triple the number of surveillance sources used by the current 50-year-old system. It's intended to improve travel through an integrated, adaptable air transportation system, allowing aircraft to adjust to factors such as weather, traffic congestion, flight patterns and security issues. Aside from improved air travel, other goals are reduced fuel consumption, carbon emissions and noise footprint.
NextGen is the backbone of the FAA's plans for accommodating a forecast 50 percent growth in air traffic over the next decade. Most other nations already have adopted satellite-based technology for guiding planes, or are heading in that direction, but the FAA has moved cautiously. Notably, the U.S. accounts for 35 percent of global commercial air traffic and has the world's most complicated airspace, with greater and more varied private aviation than other countries.
The Florida NextGen Test Bed, in turn, serves as a laboratory where new and emerging concepts and technologies can be demonstrated and validated. The FAA administers the Test Bed and provides guidance for NextGen proof-of-concept programs. Embry-Riddle manages the facility, conducts research there and coordinates the work of industry leaders such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Electric and Harris, along with government agencies. It's one of only three in the country (New York Test Bed and Texas Test Bed are the others) and the only one at an academic institution.
In addition, the Florida NextGen Test Bed stands as a beacon of widespread collaboration in an endeavor that has undoubted global impact.
“As we modernize our national airspace, collaboration and partnership with the aviation community is key,” asserts FAA Acting Administrator Michael Huerta. “NextGen and Embry-Riddle are delivering just that with innovative research and a state-of-the-art Test Bed.”
“NextGen is a massive, complicated program, and we have to do it right,” cites U.S. Rep. Tom Petri, chair of the Aviation Subcommittee. “The Florida Test Bed is an example of a public-private partnership that will bring together government, the private sector and academia to move NextGen forward by testing and developing NextGen technologies. We need to draw on the expertise and experience of a wide range of interests if NextGen is to succeed. This is the type of collaborative effort we need to ensure that NextGen progresses so that we can enjoy the many benefits it will provide in terms of safety, the environment and greater efficiencies.”
U.S. Rep. John Mica, chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, obviously agrees. As Florida's representative for the 7th Congressional District (including parts of Orange, Putnam, Seminole and Volusia counties as well as all of Flagler and St. Johns counties), he was instrumental in making the Test Bed take hold. “The Florida Test Bed is an example of how the federal government can harness private sector and academic resources in partnership to help modernize our air traffic control system and improve the safety and efficiency of U.S. aviation,” Mica affirms.
As an example of his own influence in making the Test Bed a reality, he brought his House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to the expansion ribbon-cutting. Prior to the ceremony, the committee held a field hearing, where members received testimony from Huerta, representatives of academia and the aviation industry regarding the status of public sector, private sector and academic work in helping modernize the nation’s air traffic control system.
There are big economic benefits, too, Mica adds: “At a time when our nation needs job creation, research on NextGen technologies will create significant opportunities for all of Central Florida. Our partners in this research are creating jobs and economic development, while developing a system that will make air travel safer and more efficient.”
And, by many accounts, this appears very real. While Embry-Riddle and Lockheed Martin spawned the Test Bed idea through what is labeled the Integrated Airport Initiative, membership today has grown to 15 partners. Lockheed Martin, as the prime contractor for the FAA's En Route Automation Modernization program—the replacement for the FAA automation systems and infrastructure used by controllers to manage airspace above 10,000 feet—remains at the forefront.
"Lockheed Martin is proud to support the FAA in transforming our national airspace, and making travel easier than ever before,” comments Sandy Samuel, vice president of Lockheed Martin's Transportation Solutions.
Meanwhile, Embry-Riddle, the world's largest fully accredited university specializing in aviation and aerospace, has garnered the trust of both the FAA and corporate partners in a quest to provide solutions to real-world aviation problems. “These are exciting times for aviation,” says Wade Lester, Embry-Riddle’s NextGen program manager. “Ultimately, we all want to make flying better for everyone.”
The challenge, and related opportunities, filters down to students at Embry-Riddle, too, who are gaining uncommon industry access. Most recently, a February convening of the NextGen Advisory Committee, along with the FAA's Huerta, Lockheed Martin Information Systems Global Solutions–Civil President John Mengucci and JetBlue Airways President/CEO Dave Barger, brought a tour of Test Bed facility and a chance to meet with students. On campus, several of the committee members participated in a CEO/Student Roundtable to discuss emerging trends in aviation, managing an increasingly crowded airspace and why those seeking careers in aviation will contribute to global economic growth.
“Embry-Riddle is proud to be on the forefront of revamping the nation’s air traffic control system,” says university president John Johnson. “We are particularly excited about the potential partnerships with major aerospace companies and the impact it will have on Daytona Beach and all of Central Florida.”
The partnerships already are paying off. Since 2008, researchers have integrated information about predicted weather and flight trajectories into the new automated en route system, as well as a terminal management system. They also have exchanged data about aircraft movement on airport surfaces and aircraft flying across the Atlantic Ocean. And, in February, the En Route Automation Modernization program, which will eventually replace the old system used at 20 FAA air traffic control centers, became operational at six sites: Chicago, Los Angeles, Oakland, Albuquerque, Minneapolis, and Denver. Two others centers, in Salt Lake City and Seattle, have been fully operational for more than a year.
Future tasks, among others, include an exchange of flight information for planes crossing the Pacific Ocean; the investigation of commercial integration of unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system; and the use of four-dimensional trajectories assigned to aircraft to manage aircraft routes.
And, while there have been tenuous financial times in recent years, a future has been assured. In February, after numerous delays and debates, President Obama signed a new funding agreement, authorizing $63.4 billion for the FAA over four years, including approximately $11 billion toward the air traffic system and its modernization. The agreement sets a deadline of June 2015 for the FAA to develop new arrival procedures at the nation's 35 busiest airports, so planes can land using the more-precise GPS navigation.
For the Space Coast, the timing couldn't be much better. Amid the reality of the space shuttle program ending last July and word that NASA’s Mars mission would be scaled back—in a budget that would give NASA about $59 million less than expected—there is some hope.
And anticipation. “A lot of the systems are older, antiquated. And they have to be replaced,” emphasizes Lester, a 23-year veteran of the Air Force who talks almost daily with Lockheed Martin officials and regularly with the government and other industry leaders. For good measure, he adds the fact that aviation industry represents roughly 5.5 percent of entire Gross Domestic Product.
NextGen success is a must. Yet, the transition just won't happen overnight. “It's not a flip of a switch,” Lester cites. “We're not going to say that in 2020 the switch is going to come on and all air traffic will be managed by this new system. It's more of a transformational process that has already begun.
“There are a lot of plates spinning. And the FAA is in charge of keeping all those plates spinning. And eventually they have to start stacking those plates and still keep them all spinning.”
When the stacking begins, expect the Florida NextGen Test Bad to pass with flying colors.
“This will work,” Lester concludes. “And, to put it another way, it really has to.”
Did You Know?
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, the world's largest, fully accredited university specializing in aviation and aerospace, is a nonprofit, independent institution offering more than 40 baccalaureate, master's and Ph.D. degree programs in its colleges of Arts and Sciences, Aviation, Business and Engineering. Embry-Riddle educates students at residential campuses in Daytona Beach and Prescott, Ariz., and through the Worldwide Campus with more than 150 locations in the United States, Europe, Asia, Canada and the Middle East.
Redefining Kennedy Space Center
More potential good news for the Space Coast: In an innovative agreement that is expected to create jobs, NASA announced last October a partnership with Space Florida to occupy, use and modify Kennedy Space Center's Orbiter Processing Facility-3, the Space Shuttle Main Engine Processing Facility and Processing Control Center.
In turn, Space Florida, the aerospace economic development agency for the state, has an agreement with the Boeing Co. for use of the Orbiter Processing Facility-3 to manufacture and test the company's Crew Space Transportation spacecraft, creating up to 550 jobs along the Space Coast. The reusable capsule-shaped spacecraft will be used to transport up to seven people, or a combination of people and cargo, to space.
Additionally, Boeing is locating the company's Commercial Crew Program headquarters at the center, with the goal of developing the capability of U.S. commercial crew space transportation to and from the International Space Station and future low Earth orbit destinations.
The moves might be the first of several affecting other Kennedy facilities, as the center sorts through what it needs for the future and what can be turned over to others. The retirement of the space shuttle fleet in July made a number of facilities available for future use.
"Neither NASA nor the Space Coast can afford to stand still,” asserts NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “We must be aggressive in pursuing this next generation of space exploration—and the jobs and innovation that will accompany it.”
"Kennedy continues working to bring new commercial space activities to the center," says Kennedy Center Director Bob Cabana. "Partnering with Space Florida to enable commercial space operations at Kennedy will help NASA maintain facilities and assets while supporting our nation's space objectives and expanding opportunities for the U.S. economy."
About Congressman John L. Mica
John L. Mica was first elected to the U.S. Congress in 1992 to represent the 7th Congressional District of Florida, including Winter Park, Altamonte Springs, Lake Mary, Sanford, Deltona, DeBary, DeLand, Daytona Beach, Ormond Beach, Palm Coast, Palatka and St. Augustine, among other cities. He is serving his 10th term.
In the current 112th Congress, Mica was elected by his peers in the House of Representatives to chair the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, one of the largest Congressional panels in Congress. In that role, Mica serves on all six transportation and infrastructure subcommittees: Aviation; Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation; Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management; Highways and Transit; Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials; and Water Resources and Environment.
He has been recognized as a national leader on a variety of transportation issues, both nationally and regionally. In 2001, Mica was named chair of the Subcommittee on Aviation and served through 2006. After the 9-11 terrorist attacks, he led the effort in Congress to restore stability to the aviation industry and co-authored the Aviation and Transportation Security Law. In Florida, aside from championing the Florida NextGen Test Bed and generally remaining vigilant of statewide concerns, Mica has staunchly advocated alternative transportation systems, such as high-speed and commuter rail.
Prior to his election to Congress, Mica established several successful business ventures, ranging from real estate and communications to international trade consulting and governmental affairs.