The Federal Aviation Administration operates the largest, safest and most complex aerospace system in the world. Its systems guide tens of thousands of aircraft through the nation’s skies each day.
Two years ago, Dan Hicok was named acting director of the newly formed Surveillance Services Directorate, and in mid-September, he formally became the director. With 25 years’ experience in FAA as both a government employee and a contractor, Hicok said he has eagerly embraced this opportunity to upgrade FAA systems and ensure safe air travel for citizens.
The Surveillance Services Directorate is part of FAA’s program management organization, which acquires air traffic control systems. Within the directorate, the focus is on determining the position, identity and other information associated with a given aircraft. Surveillance provides that information to air traffic controllers, so they can do their job of safely separating air traffic.
“In order to do that, we acquire everything from radar systems to GPS-based surveillance services, as well as other associated technologies that make the whole system work,” Hicok said.
As of January 2020, Hicok’s office has supported the mandatory use of Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast, or ADS–B, technology.
“What it means is that the aircraft itself determines its own position using GPS or other related onboard systems,” he said. “It determines its own latitude and longitude, and it knows its speed and heading and it broadcasts it out.”
This lessens the demand on FAA’s legacy radar installations, and ensures a continuous flow of timely and accurate information to ground controllers.
“We want to continue to increase the safety of the flying public, and it’s also about efficiency, which means you’re able to get to your destination more predictably, more often,” Hicok said.
Hicok’s office also is supporting the emerging Spectrum Efficient National Surveillance Radar, or SENSR, system, in cooperation with the departments of Defense and Homeland Security.
Under this program, FAA will auction off some of its radar spectra to private telecom operators. The private companies can reuse those spectra, for example, in support of new mobile applications to serve the public. FAA, in turn, will use the revenues to replace or upgrade its long-range radar systems.
“What’s unique about it is that we are able to provide a benefit to the taxpayer, at no taxpayer expense,” Hicok said. “This is still a feasibility study, but if successful, we would be able to replace our long-range radar systems with something modern, at no cost to the taxpayer.”
Even as these changes unfold, ground radar will continue to be a mainstay of FAA operations. Modernization will help the agency shrink that footprint, though, and trim the costs associated with supporting FAA’s extensive radar assets.
“The ADS-B rollout means that we don’t need all of those radar systems anymore,” Hicok said. “We have a surplus. However, we’re not going to completely get rid of them. ADS-B uses GPS to determine position and then broadcast it out. But what if GPS is degraded or out of service in a regional area? You can’t be without this vital information. So the radar systems actually provide a critical backup to ADS-B.”
Hicok said he also has his eye on a space-based version of ADS-B, in which aircraft would feed data to satellites, which would in turn convey key information to air traffic control. Still in the experimental stage, this evolution has the potential to provide global ADS-B coverage, as well as coverage over wide swaths of ocean where surveillance can be harder to implement.
For GovCons looking to interact effectively with FAA, Hicok said his office plans to host a Surveillance Industry Day in 2021.
“We’ll talk to them about where we’re headed strategically with surveillance technology, and we can try to find those good matches where somebody has something on the market that is consistent with what we need,” he said.
With undergraduate and graduate degrees from Virginia Tech, Hicok has long been passionate about aerospace. He found his love for the aviation business in college when he was learning in the aerospace engineering department.
“As I worked more in the FAA, I really discovered my love for the mission: to be able to ensure that people can get from one place to another safely and efficiently,” Hicok said. “It’s absolutely inspiring. Providing the technology to support that operation is what I love to do. I’m kind of a nerd. I go to airports all over the country and I see our radar systems spinning on the airfield. And I think: I helped put that one in over there.”
All those spinning radars represent more than just a technological investment. They’re a tangible demonstration of FAA’s ongoing ability to move people swiftly and safely over vast distances, empowering global commerce and closing the gap between cultures and communities.
“That excitement never goes away,” Hicok said.