NATS Holdings (formerly National Air Traffic Services) Military Aviation Planning Portal (MAPP) is an online service enabling users to view the status of the UK airspace. The portal allows for the creation and submission of flight plans for forthcoming flights.

In most scenarios, there is a regulation that requires military pilots planning to fly in UK airspace to submit a flight plan. This outlines the route of the flight, the departure and destination, the equipment being used and the time and date of the flight.

Until recently, Ministry of Defence (MOD) flight services (Royal Air Force, Navy and Army), used multiple services to plan, create and submit flight plans. This process included staff in each operation location updating physical maps to indicate the status of UK airspace and airfields.

The MAPP product has been designed to replace these services and the process of updating physical maps. It provides just one service that allows operations (ops) staff to view the real time status of UK airspace and airfields, plot a route for a forthcoming flight and submit and manage the flight plan for that flight.

Challenge

Prior to engaging with BJSS, MOD ops staff were using a Java applet-based message client to create and submit flight plans. This application was incompatible with recent Windows-based PCs. A legacy machine had to be retained at every location using leased lines, which were costly to maintain.

This system provided updates on the status of UK airspace via Notice to Air Missions (NOTAMS) but had no capability to parse and display this data from a spatial point of view. As a result, ops staff in every operational location had to regularly review all NOTAMS received, then transcribe and plot them on physical maps to indicate the status of UK airspace and illustrate potential hazards to the planning of flights.

The legacy machines were increasingly unreliable, and unsupported. And only allowed one user to access the application at a time in any one location. There was a huge duplication of effort in frequently replotting the NOTAM information in different locations and a recognised potential for error when transferring that information to a physical map.

BJSS was selected to carry out this project after proving the ability to visualise spatial data as part of a previous engagement (NATS mos). After demonstrating a prototype to NATS and the MOD, BJSS was asked to first build a replacement for the message client and then introduce visualisation to the service.

Solution

The BJSS solution takes advantage of AWS Cloud services to provide a robust, scalable web-based solution to NATS for the MOD.

It communicates with a legacy API to consume NOTAM and flight plan messages. These messages are presented in a modern message client that also supports the creation and submission of flight plans and NOTAM proposals.

NOTAM messages are parsed and converted into spatial data that can be plotted on an online map. This data can be filtered by type, date, location and height to provide required information for aircrew planning flights.

'Static' airspace data (in CSV and XML format), such as waypoints, low flying areas, and control areas can be uploaded and displayed if required, further augmenting the airspace status.

Meteorological data (Meteorological Aerodrome Report and Terminal Aerodrome Forecast) was added to both civilian and military airfield locations on the map to provide aircrew with weather information at airfields.

Aircrews can plot a route on the map, which is automatically converted into spatial co-ordinates for use in a flight plan. This includes waypoint designations, ICAO airfield codes or latitude and longitude co-ordinates.

The solution was delivered iteratively using an agile approach that demonstrated ongoing progress to the client. It also supported swift changes in priority. For example, implementing support for ASHTAM messages, which contain special information about volcanic eruptions and ash clouds, following the 2021 volcanic eruption in Iceland.

The application is hosted entirely on AWS Cloud. It is largely serverless, using Lambda written in Node.js, with mapping provided via Google Maps and the Google Maps API. Management of spatial data is supported using PostreSQL and PostGIS, with static data and non-spatial messages stored in DynamoDB. The platform makes use of Docker containers to build and deploy applications, while the CICD pipelines are implemented using Terraform.

Outcomes

The MAPP project began in 2016 and went live in 2020. The service is currently being used at every MOD flight service location, including at sea. The MAPP application has been in constant development for six years. Additional features continue to be iteratively added to the application to replace existing manual processes or standalone services related to flight planning.

The MOD can now realise cost savings through the use of the online map and real-time updates, removing the need for ops teams to update physical maps. In addition, reliance on the use of phone and fax to communicate airfield statuses has been greatly reduced.

Recently, an external API has been added to the message service to allow another NATS client to send NOTAMS.