Info, not integration, key to better air system

When the Federal Aviation Administration delivers new technology for air

traffic controllers as part of its modernization program, the FAA must ensure

that controllers do not miss any critical information.

But panelists discussing automation last week at the convention of the Air

Traffic Control Association Inc. in Atlantic City, N.J., said that the rapid

turnover of technology means shifting from focusing on how a system works

to what information systems provide air traffic control users.

"Integration is dead," said Mike Harrison, program director of architecture

and system engineering at the FAA. If the agency is to get new tools to

air traffic controllers faster, better and cheaper, time and money cannot

be wasted on software and hardware integration, he said. The ability to

keep pace with the latest developments depends on creating information standards

and treating the National Airspace System as an information network.

Although commercial off-the-shelf hardware and software vendors try

to put value-added bells and whistles onto COTS packages, the air traffic

control market needs a purer approach that makes it easy to transfer information

from one tool to the next as the system is incrementally upgraded, Harrison

said. Inconsistent data encroaches on safety and efficiency, he said.

"It really doesn't make any difference whether I use this database or

that one, as long as the information is the same," he said. The nation's

air traffic control system — which comprises oceanic, en route, terminal

area and airport facilities that hand off air traffic to one another during

the phases of flight — is known as a system of systems, Harrison said. But

in reality, the information technology architecture and information flows

are a set of functions that have to be passed to multiple pieces of a giant

information system in a consistent way, he said.

As the air system is stretched, decisions about what capabilities to

implement must be based on what can realistically be accomplished with new

information, said William Voss, director of the FAA's Office of Air Traffic

Systems Development. For instance, data fusion should not be done unless

it can create efficiencies such as shortening the minimum distances between

airplanes, Voss said.

But the human factor must be considered when focusing on air traffic

control modernization, Harrison said. "We can't add more layers of information

unless more information reduces the workload," he said.

Controllers can help early in the process of designing new technologies

because they sit at a piece of new equipment and know if they are getting

the right information, said Randy Schwitz, executive vice president of the

National Air Traffic Controllers Association, a controllers union.

"What I need today to do my job is tools that give me the same functionality

without increasing my workload," Schwitz said.

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