Why acquisition management is the SENSR project's secret weapon

Getting four agencies to share spectrum and combine their radar systems is a massive undertaking. Settling on a single acquisition management system makes it much more manageable.

radio spectrum

Coordinating air traffic is akin to synchronizing a ballet performed over a pit of alligators, but four federal agencies have banded together in hopes of conducting that performance more effectively and efficiently.

Just over a year ago, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration unveiled an idea to combine air traffic control, air defense and surveillance, border and critical infrastructure protection, and weather forecasting prediction into a single, spectrum-conserving "system of systems" by 2024.

It's a dauntingly complex undertaking -- so much so that Congress last fall told the Department of Transportation’s inspector general to keep a special eye on the project. But a combination of legislative incentives and careful coordination seem to be paying dividends.

The Spectrum Efficient National Surveillance Radar project, said Mike Freie, the FAA's acting SENSR program manager, is aimed at “starting from scratch” to replace agencies’ piecemeal legacy systems with new technology, while also making more effective use of federal spectrum.

Starting from scratch doesn’t mean proprietary, custom-made equipment and systems, however. Freie and his team are in discussions with industry about commercially available solutions that could fill their needs.

Freie and Benjie Spencer, NOAA's chief engineer and director of engineering standards, recently spoke with FCW about the project.

SENSR’s primary goal, Frei said, “is to provide more efficient use for mission by deploying a new architecture of systems,” which can better keep track of the congested airspace that is commonly monitored by all four agencies on separate systems.

SENSR also takes a new tack on leveraging federal spectrum. The plan is for the agencies to vacate 30 MHz of the 1300-1350 MHz band to make it available for reallocation for shared federal and non-federal use. If the project is successful and the spectrum is freed up, it will be auctioned by the Federal Communications Commission in 2024 to commercial providers who could pay the government billions to get it.

That move was authorized under the Spectrum Pipeline Act of 2015, which was instrumental in setting the foundation for SENSR, said Freie. The teams began planning how it might leverage the act to handle SNSR even before the law took effect, according to Freie.

In the summer of 2017, the Office of Management and Budget gave $71.5 million to the four agencies for the project. Without the act’s funding, Freie said, there was “a very low likelihood” SENSR would have been conceived.

The inter-agency team also decided early on in development that trying to meld separate acquisition processes at four agencies to handle SENSR would be a significant obstacle. The team set the FAA and its Acquisition Management System as project leads. AMS is the FAA’s acquisition lifecycle framework that helps the agency balance acquisition resources and assess risks.

“That’s what makes this interesting,” said Spencer, noting the complexity of both the acquisition processes and the technology involved.

Spencer is no stranger to complex, multi-agency tech acquisitions. He helped develop the NEXRAD doppler weather radar system in the 1980s and 1990s with NOAA, DOD and FAA. SENSR is his third big multi-agency acquisition, Spencer said, and the lessons learned from those previous projects are already being put to use.

The team has also been talking with the tech industry about the project, recently concluding an “industry week” at the end of March at drew 60 companies to discuss it, said Freie. The information and feedback gleaned from those meetings and discussions will be forged into a second request for information, which Freie said will be issued in June.

The need for the combined system is obvious to both the agencies and aircraft operators, since all four agencies have similar radar-related missions or needs.

Melissa Rudinger, vice president of regulatory affairs/government affairs at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, called SENSR “a good thing” that might mark a new way of thinking about joint mission operations among federal agencies and spectrum use.

Although Rudinger noted she is not following all details of the project, she said past discussions over increasingly limited spectrum resources had been hard to have, since stakeholders have been quick to protect their existing resources. “This sends a signal that maybe a more collaborative approach or new technologies that can offer ways to free up spectrum” are out there, she said. “Combining existing radar systems is not a bad idea.”