Air Traffic In The Cloud

The FAA and the aviation industry have been slow to embrace cloud computing. But finally, flight plans, passenger manifests, air traffic updates, and even the no-fly list are headed for the cloud.

If computers and technology were aircraft, most of the aviation industry would still be flying biplanes—the people whose business is hurtling your through the sky are way behind the curve in cloud computing.

Slowly but surely, that's changing. 

The Federal Aviation Administration, like the rest of the federal government, is slowly migrating to a system of remotely based systems. Airlines and airports are moving to cloud-based servers for sensitive flight information, too. A variety of platforms and software packages now target the aviation market. But the industry on whole still uses infamously outdated computer technology. So how do they get clunky old systems into the cloud ... and what are the risks for flyers and airlines?

In May, the FAA released their cloud computing strategy [PDF] and announced a sweet $91 million contract for Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) and Microsoft to create a cloud email system for the agency. The FAA's standards were designed to avoid safety or performance risks to air traffic management systems; however, the agency also announced their intention to transition these onto cloud networks in the future.

CSC, which has a long working relationship with the FAA, will be handling the transition of approximately 80,000 federal employees to Microsoft Office 365—a move mandated by federal IT requirements. The transfer will impact 60,000 FAA employees and 20,000 Transportation Department employees nationwide. According to Nextgov's Aliya Sternstein, Microsoft also provides cloud email services to the Agriculture Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The federal government's ongoing embrace of cloud computing is one reason tech giants like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft all spend millions on Capitol Hill lobbyists.

While the FAA's restricting itself to cloud email for the near future, individual airlines, airports, and international agencies are moving critical flight information to the cloud. Xerox and flight data firm AvFinity announced a cloud computing partnership in May 2012 that promised to reduce airline costs by sharing flight and passenger information via Xerox's cloud services. AvFinity's AIRS system connects flight plans with American and international authorities, shares advance passenger information with government agencies in the U.S. and elsewhere, and connects legacy airline tech with the cloud.

Xerox's Pat Hochstein told Fast Company that airline customers were very interested in stability and issues related to connecting legacy systems to the cloud. Sixty percent of regional airlines, according to Hochstein, already use AIRS technology in one form or another. Robert Cook of AvFinity also noted that airlines worry that their technology was not originally intended for the cloud.

AIRS, which runs on Cisco equipment, can also share passenger information with the Department of Homeland Security for their no-fly list. While AIRS is primarily intended for the aviation industry, Cisco has a tight business partnership with the Homeland Security Department. But the name of the game remains quick transmission of data—according to Xerox's promotional materials, the product “means critical flight information, like flight plans and passenger details, arrives without interruption at its destination and meets each receiving party’s format and protocol requirements.”

Neither Xerox nor AvFinity were comfortable speaking on record about customer names other than regional carriers such as Air Wisconsin, Pinnacle Airlines, Mesa Airlines, or AeroMexico, Viva Aerobus, and Caribbean Airlines in the international market. Regional airlines are a big market for external vendors of all sorts—America's small airlines are in the middle of a long-term crisis caused by a combination of the economic situation and internal aerospace industry shenanigans. Companies who can promise to cut an airline's operating costs receive an eager ear these days. AvFinity's sales pitch to airlines is that the cost of a one-time transition is cheaper than the cost of continually patching up legacy technologies.

Legacy systems are common in commercial aviation and at airports. As any frequent traveler knows, big airlines constantly lose track of standby flyers during turbulent weather. Air traffic technology in the United States still relies on radar, with a 10-second delay, rather than faster GPS-based systems. The FAA has announced a plan to upgrade the United States' half-century old air traffic system, but changes will not be implemented until at least 2020. Connecting legacy technology—including fax machines and telexes—to the cloud is a particular challenge for AvFinity and Xerox.

While cloud-based disclosure of passenger manifests and no-fly information might be worrying to privacy activists, safety issues related to cloud computing are also a concern. What happens if Xerox's cloud network becomes inaccessible or too slow to safely access? Xerox and AvFinity's system puts redundancies into place; airlines, airports and authorities can still access traditional networks while critical flight plans, aid traffic, and weather information are pushed onto the cloud for quick access.

The FAA's cloud computing plan also includes details on a transition of selected air transport management and control systems to the cloud. However, the FAA is still working on issues related to privacy, reliability, safety, and security of physical data centers.

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here or find him on Twitter and Google+.

[Image: Flickr user Pedro Szekely]

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