FAAs new computer system slow during tests

WASHINGTON — Leaders of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) say they should have involved their own technicians more closely in a project to improve the agency`s faltering air traffic control systems.

Jul 1st, 1999

By John McHale

WASHINGTON — Leaders of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) say they should have involved their own technicians more closely in a project to improve the agency`s faltering air traffic control systems.

Such involvement may have headed off the latest technical problems in the FAA`s new air-control computer — the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS) from Raytheon Systems Co. in Marlborough, Mass. — officials say.

Tests last spring determined that changes put in place as a result of suggestions from FAA technicians and air traffic controllers actually slowed the effectiveness of STARS computers.

Yet the controllers and tech-nicians were not involved in the design process, which was a mistake, admits FAA spokesman William Shumann. They should have been included as soon as "we had the contract in September 1996," he adds.

Tests showed that the new STARS took about twice as long as the FAA`s existing antiquated equipment to display aircraft positions on controllers` radar screens, Shumann says.

That might not have happened if the FAA`s air controllers had worked closely with Raytheon systems engineers throughout the STARS redesign.

At the beginning of the STARS upgrade, controllers suggested 98 changes and technicians 52 changes, Shumann explains.

Making the changes required software engineers to rewrite about 800,000 lines of additional code, which is what slowed down the system, a Raytheon spokesman says.

One of the changes included replacing the STARS QWERTY keyboard with the same kind of ABC keyboard that controllers use on their existing system — an ARTS color display from Lockheed Martin Air Traffic Control Systems in Rockville, Md.

Another change involved using a toolbar and adding knobs to the side of the display console, rather than use a pull-down menu on the screen, the Raytheon spokesman says.

They wanted the knobs because that is what the controllers have on their current system, the Raytheon spokesman explains. "It`s like turning a 1999 Cadillac into a `57 Chevy," he says.

Raytheon officials had to fix the timing and controls in the software to adjust to the slow performance that resulted from adding software code.

However, Raytheon engineers did not remove the original functions of STARS, in case FAA officials change their minds in the future, the Raytheon spokesman says. The system can still port to a QWERTY keyboard if the operator chooses to use one, he explains.

STARS has an open architecture, which is what helped Raytheon engineers make the FAA`s 150 changes in seven months, the Raytheon spokesman claims.

STARS is the program to replace the computer systems and controller workstations in 172 FAA terminal radar approach control (TRACONs) and as many as 199 U.S. Department of Defense facilities throughout the United States.

The TRACON facilities provide air traffic control services within about a 50-mile radius of airports. Controllers are testing the first STARS at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. This system is to be operational in April 2000.

The system that FAA experts recently tested was the STARS early display configuration (EDC). It worked as a backup to the current ARTS display systems.

Raytheon engineers designed the EDC to be compatible with ARTS. This was to help the controllers ease into the new system, the Raytheon spokesman says.

The final STARS configuration, which is capable of drawing tracking information from 16 different radars, will have the backup system and an identical primary system. Each STARS workstation has two SPARC ULTRA computers running the Sun Solaris operating system from Sun Microsystems in Mountain View, Calif. The cathode-ray-tube display comes from Sony, the Raytheon spokesman says.

Recently FAA leaders revised their STARS implementation plan. Under the revised plan, the FAA`s first STARS will go into the Syracuse, N.Y., and El Paso, Texas, TRACONs. Initially, they will receive the EDC of STARS. In parallel, development will continue on the full STARS.

The revised STARS plan calls for the Syracuse and El Paso TRACONs to receive EDC equipment late this year and early next year, respectively. Once STARS has the capabilities to handle the needs of high-level facilities, FAA leaders will authorize its deployment throughout the country, FAA officials say.

In the meantime the FAA will buy commercial-off-the-shelf Lockheed Martin ARTS color controller displays to respond to requirements for new displays at three existing FAA facilities and two currently under construction.

These displays will be installed in the New York and Reagan Washington National TRACONs in the summer and fall of 2000. FAA experts are developing schedules for these displays in the Dallas-Fort Worth and the new Northern California and North Georgia TRACONs.

However, Raytheon officials disagree with the FAA decision to use the ARTS displays during the interim.

"We are concerned about the costs, schedule and performance of ACD and believe that an independent evaluation would show that EDC is the superior system and more cost effective," says Frank Marchelina, senior vice president, general manager of Command, Control, Communication and Information Systems at Raytheon.

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