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FAA Pushes Air Traffic Control Systems Into Service 341

An anonymous reader points us to this AP story about the FAA forcing new air traffic control systems into service, over the objections of technicians and air traffic controllers. The Transportation Department's Inspector General notes that many critical bugs remain unfixed. We reviewed a book that discussed the lessons to be learned from software engineering projects; and we had a recent story about Great Britain having all sorts of problems with their new air traffic control software.
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FAA Pushes Air Traffic Control Systems Into Service

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  • by alen ( 225700 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @03:51PM (#3647603)
    Roll it out into production and patch it later. Only full production testing will find all the bugs.
    • I thought Microsoft rolled it out into production, and then charged for the patches later?
    • Boy, do I not want to be the pilot finding the bugs! That said, there's been a lot of discussion of this system over the past couple of years within the aviation community, and it appears that once the system is ready, it will be a great productivity boost to the controllers, while reducing their stress and strain in trying to track high-density, high-speed traffic.
      • WFM, STARS-1.0-rc1, build 2002060119

        --Pilot, SWA flt 1499, dep MDW 11:25, arr 4:10 ELP
    • problem is people WILL die first time this fucks up. remeber the panic from the 90's when the phonesystem blacked out.
      this has the potential to be _MUCH_ worse.

      bad FAA, no cookie!
      • problem is people WILL die first time this fucks up.
        Unlikely. Remember, airplanes have been flying since before computers and radar.

        If the system goes down, the controllers will revert to manual. Of course the capacity of the system is greatly reduced, and there will be delays. Lots of pissed of passengers, but no dead ones.

    • some useful web sites to think about for the next couple of months.

      Amtrak []
      Greyhound []
      Hertz []

  • uhh... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by MaxVlast ( 103795 )
    Don't they remember the disaster when the ATC shut down a few years back? It's not like this thing is a web browser.
  • by t_allardyce ( 48447 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @03:53PM (#3647624) Journal
    Yeah, the controllers are pissed off because they based the new system on one of those bad ATC games with flashy graphics. It now runs on a Windows 98 machine and crashes every 1024 planes
  • by ldopa1 ( 465624 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @03:55PM (#3647646) Homepage Journal
    Even a buggy air-traffic control system is better than the one they have now. Every 3 days or so, the radar screens drop horizontal so that air traffic controllers can keep track of their dots while the computer goes down and then comes back up.

    This is not a pretty sight. Each ATC can have 30+ planes on their screen, and when the computer goes down, they screen drops horizontal, the ATC whips out little flags with numbers on them and keeps them on top of the now anonymous dots.

    So I think ANY improvement is a good thing.

    On the blacker side: The bugs themselves could be a good thing. Maybe one of these "bugs" will misreport the location of things like the Sears Tower, or the Capitol Building and a hijacked plane will slam into "Al's Meats and More" instead of the intended target.... (yes, I'm still REALLY angry about the Pentagon/WTC/Penn. terrorist attacks)

    • I don't know a whole lot about the way that this system interacts with navigation in planes themselves, but I don't believe air traffic controllers guided those terrorist airplanes into the towers. So I don't see that your "blacker side" has any reasonable chance of occurring.

    • by rhost89 ( 522547 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @04:05PM (#3647753)
      Sounds like your more mad at Al's Meat Market :)
    • yeah, but why are you mad at Al? he's just a humble butcher who offers more then just meat.

      Seriously though, known bugs can be better to deal with then a whole set of new bugs. Espcially if the new bugs miss-report altitudes.
    • Even a buggy air-traffic control system is better than the one they have now.

      I'm not sure I agree with you. From your description, it sounds like they have it pretty bad, but after reading the letter that was linked to by the original post, I think what they're getting may be even worse. Recovery times when the computer goes down are between 90 minutes and 3 hours! They're not supposed to use their existing system as an emergency backup. The FAA technicians were FORCED (by a clause in their contract) to give the system (in Syracuse) their stamp of approval, even though they don't feel it's safe for real world use. And the folks on the project can't even get close to agreeing on the number of CRITICAL trouble reports that are still outstanding. In my mind, anything marked as CRITICAL is a safety hazard.

    • It's much more likely that something will be misreported to a regular (not hijacked) flight. You might dislike Sears Towers, but misreporting its location is not a solution.
    • Could you please cite a refrence for your fanciful story of controllers with flipping screens and numbered flags? Or did you hear that "from a friend who knows a guy who works in a tower somewhere?"
    • This system simply provides location and identification information to airplanes operating under ATC. The system tells the controller where the aircraft is, the aircraft transponder tells the controller who the aircraft is, and the controller then issues instructions to the pilot, who is then responsible for executing those instructions. The hijackers of september 11 flew those planes into the towers and Pentagon by visual navigation (at least for the last few miles...they may have used the GPS system to navigate to NYC or DC).

      In short, the ATC system had nothing to do with those airplanes flying into buildings. The only way your blacker side situation would work would be to have a malicious person operating as the controller, and IFR conditions so a non-hijacker pilot couldn't see where he's going.

      • Yeah, I realized that after the post... see my reply to my reply... Thanks though. Stupid of me, really, considering I have my VFR ticket, but not my IFR ticket...

        Exit, stage left.. ;)
      • Well, a VFR ticket is more than I have at the moment. I can understand saying or doing things in the heat of the long as you don't do it in the cockpit, we'll all be fine ;-)

        Ultimately, I think this system is going to make pilots more vigilant. I've heard so many anecdotes about controllers causing near-misses (my uncle almost got creamed by a commuter plane while flying his warrior) that I think this may be a good thing.

    • Maybe one of these "bugs" will misreport the location of things like the Sears Tower, or the Capitol Building....
      No sane pilot relies on ATC to keep herself from flying into a building or a mountain.

      Even while on "radar vectors" (means the controller has identified your blip on the scope and gives you headings to fly) a pilot will always know where he is at all times. (The pilots who don't might not see old age.)

  • by alen ( 225700 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @03:58PM (#3647678)
    Not much specifics. Basically says the union hates it and the FAA and Raytheon say it's OK. It lists a few problems, but doesn't say if it could be the result of user error. We all know how users always say the system crashed when it's really their mistake. I'm not saying it's good to go for production, but it could be another time when the union is afraid that it will automate too well and result in people's jobs being lost.
    • It lists a few problems, but doesn't say if it could be the result of user error. We all know how users always say the system crashed when it's really their mistake

      Does it matter? I know I wouldn't care why the system crashed if I was in the plane. I'd just want to get home alive. If the system crashes because of user error, then that is a serious flaw.
      • Does it matter? I know I wouldn't care why the system crashed if I was in the plane. I'd just want to get home alive. If the system crashes because of user error, then that is a serious flaw.

        I'd say it matters a great deal. If the problems are user errors then the solution is training, not software fixes - or at least UI programming changes, not changes to the core software. My point is that the nature of the problems tells us what to fix.

        More to the point, because the original article doesn't give a single example of the sort of problems being reported it is very hard to evaluate the competing claims that the system is "seriously flawed" or "okay". Is this a union worried for its members' jobs crying wolf? Or is this a management team riding roughshod over the legitimate safety concerns of the people who know?

        We can't tell from an article that merely rehashes the claims of both sides without presenting any supporting evidence.
        • The Yorktown incident comes to mind (and yes, I know that some claim it's not NT's fault -- but it's not relevant here).

          Someone was able to bring the ship to a complete halt because of user error. Do we really want the same sort of thing to happen in ATC?
    • I'd say this sounds kinda of like how NASA and Morton Thiokol management said it was ok to set the Challenger off that morning. Unions can be many bad things, but when it comes to people's safety I'm thinking we want to go with the most conservative view on the subject.
      • Do you know how many times the conservative estimate is wrong? There was probably a conservative report of a potential terrorist attack each of the 365 days last year. Would you like the FAA to ground all airplanes every single day?

        Clearly, conservative is good when you're talking about people's lives. Also clearly, it is possible to be too conservative.
    • by sphealey ( 2855 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @04:36PM (#3648041)
      Basically says the union hates it and the FAA and Raytheon say it's OK. It lists a few problems, but doesn't say if it could be the result of user error.
      Here's an article that discusses these issues from the controller's perspective. [].

      I am aware of the high-tech world's hated for anything that smacks of unionization. However, everything I have heard from the pilot's side (particularly GA pilots) is that the FAA is, well, not doing too well these days. And that the front-line controllers are probably more right on these issues than their bosses.


      • by phliar ( 87116 )
        Here's an article that discusses these issues from the controller's perspective [].
        Jesus Christ Almighty! I recommend every pilot here go read that article. He talks about non-radar and a couple of "deals" that had me sweating.
        everything I have heard from the pilot's side (particularly GA pilots) is that the FAA is, well, not doing too well these days. And that the front-line controllers are probably more right on these issues than their bosses.
        I'm a GA pilot, instrument rated so I get to deal with controllers a lot. I will take the controllers word over the FAAs any day. Controllers have saved my ass more times and more ways than I care to remember. The FAA has only thrown all kinds of bullshit paperwork around. (However, the FAA, just like any other giant government agency, has good parts and bad. The enforcement people just suck, whereas FSDO people are usually good.)

        The AvWeb article cited above (which is written by Don Brown, Facility Safety Representative at ZTL) also talks about FAA wanting to do away with primary radar altogether. Fucking morons. There are still plenty of airplanes flying around with no electrical systems, which means no transponders.

  • Wonderful (Score:4, Insightful)

    by cnkeller ( 181482 ) <cnkeller@gma[ ]com ['il.' in gap]> on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @03:58PM (#3647684) Homepage
    FAA spokesman Scott Brenner said the only problems are the normal bugs that accompany any new technology.

    Except when by web browser crashes, it doesn't slam me into the ground in a firey mass of twisted, molten metal.

    Seriously, I thought design philosophies such as the CMM [] level 5 (used on the space shuttle design), should prevent things like this from happening. I'm sure it's safe to fly, but stories like this don't inspire me to full confidence.

    • by noahbagels ( 177540 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @04:31PM (#3647995)
      Please read:
      The ATC / Control Tower is never responsible for controlling the aircraft, nor actually guiding aircraft between hills/etc. Even in a busy place like the San Francisco Bay, the ATC advises of traffic and coordinates inbound and outbound traffic lanes to keep traffic well spaced. ATC typical instructions, even with hills very nearby (1nm) usually consist of a destination landmark or vector, and an altitude.

      Not to rant or anything, but from what I understand, the current system is incredibly out of date. It is important, not only to update the ATC gear, but that the FAA institude a complete overhaul of avionics. It is now possible with less than $1000 of gear to have in-flight collision detectors based on GPS, but this is uncommon on private aircraft costing $100k+.

      Just my 2 cents.
      • The ATC / Control Tower is never responsible for controlling the aircraft, nor actually guiding aircraft between hills/etc.

        Uh, not quite.

        What you say is true for aircraft operating under VFR (Visual Flight Rules), but not for aircraft operating under IFR (Instrument Flight Rules). When you're operating IFR, if the controller gives you a vector, you follow the vector.

        Now, that said, it's still the pilot's responsibility to clear terrain, but without GPS-based terrain avoidance it's damned near impossible to guarantee terrain avoidance when you're IFR, in the soup, and on vectors unless you're intimately familiar with the terrain and your own location.

        The bummer of it is that it's when you're relatively low (thus closer to terrain), in relatively busy airspace (you're talking to approach control, who's usually talking to a bunch of different airplanes, and it's a party line so you have to continuously monitor the ATC frequency listening for your callsign), and are having to do a lot of different things (like listen to the ATIS [Automated Terminal Information Service] at the destination airport to get weather, runway info, etc., brief the approach you'll be making into the destination airport, set up the radios and the navigation instruments for the approach, etc., all while listening to the ATC party line frequency for instructions) that it's most likely that you'll be receiving vectors from ATC. That means that if you're in the soup, you have very little time to handle terrain avoidance, which is why GPS-based terrain avoidance gear is such good stuff to have.

        Bottom line is that ATC can vector planes into terrain, and it actually has done so occasionally. It doesn't happen often. But it happens. And that's with all the equipment working, at that.

        Yeah, it could be a lot better. But the FAA governs aviation with an iron fist, so you're only allowed to use technology that it deems suitable. And the FAA moves at a glacial pace when it comes to allowing new technology in airplanes. It's why modern general aviation airplanes are still using aircooled piston engines that were literally designed back in the 1940's, and why everyone is still using AM radios for communications.

      • The ATC / Control Tower is never responsible for controlling the aircraft ... Even in a busy place like the San Francisco Bay, the ATC advises of traffic and coordinates inbound and outbound traffic lanes to keep traffic well spaced. ATC typical instructions, even with hills very nearby (1nm) usually consist of a destination landmark or vector, and an altitude.
        If you're VFR! If you're IFR (and I'm an instrument rated pilot, flying in the San Francisco Bay Area) you bet ATC "controls" you. I put that in quotes, because as an instructor of mine once said, "you are the one who's going to die if he vectors you into a hillside." That said, if you're IFR (every airline flight is IFR) then ATC separates you from other traffic [airline traffic stays in Class B airspace], and gives you radar vectors. "Cherokee 12345, vector for traffic, turn left heading 275." However, the gist of your argument holds: regardless of what ATC will or won't do, no pilot should let ATC put him or her into a bad situation.

        Sadly, a couple of years ago two pilots in the area flew a vector into a hill. They thought they were IFR, the controller thought they were VFR; he gave them a vector and then as his workload increased, he forgot about them. The lesson is: fly every ATC instruction as though he's trying to kill you. Sure, it's his responsibility, but it's your life.

        It is important, not only to update the ATC gear, but that the FAA institude a complete overhaul of avionics.
        Not so fast!!! The airplanes I like to fly (tube-and-fabric taildraggers, sailplanes, aerobatics) cost $20,000. TCAD-like [collision avoidance] devices are around $20,000 installed. See the problem?

    • CMM Level 5 is a fantastic set of coding standards. So much time is spent on each line that it's absolutely perfect by the time it leaves the building.

      The problem with Level 5 is the same as the benefit. So much time is spent on QC that govt. contractors, working for the lowest bidder, and Fed programmers, can't afford to work to that level of quality.

      C'est la vie.

      • I thought design philosophies such as the CMM [] level 5 (used on the space shuttle design)

      CMM does not eliminate bugs, but it does aim to improve processes such that bugs could be far lessened.

      In any case, CMM (at any level) did not exist when the Space Shuttle software was implemented. As far as I can tell, the CMM [] first came into being around 1987. There were no CMM level 5 shops existing for years after that. Note also from this link that the study referenced on page 11 does show that defects (aka bugs) do get shipped on software system developed with CMM level 5, although they are much decreased.

      I believe the basic Space Shuttle software was implemented in the late 70s, independently, by groups at IBM and Rockwell. You might be referring to new software they now field for use with the Space Shuttle. I don't know.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @03:59PM (#3647688)
    My internship with Raytheon was actually doing development work for this project. Although they were still behind schedule then, what they did have up and running at the time sure looked a hell of a lot better than the old system.

    On a side note, I talked with someone from the FAA about the old system and the hackability of it. I was told that they deemed the US ATC system virtually hack-proof for the simple fact that the hardware was so antiquated that anyone wanting to do malicious damage either wouldn't know how, or it would be such an arduous and tedious task that they'd eventually give up!
    • I was told that they deemed the US ATC system virtually hack-proof for the simple fact that the hardware was so antiquated that anyone wanting to do malicious damage either wouldn't know how, or it would be such an arduous and tedious task that they'd eventually give up!

      Why would someone want to hack into it, it does such a good job of going down all by itself.

      Actually, this is kinda sad + interesting. If someone did hack the old system and brought it down, the atc'ers wouldn't be phased a bit, to them, just another atc system glitch.

      Unfortunately, it looks like the new system will follow in the old systems footsteps.
    • My internship with Raytheon was actually doing development work for this project. Although they were still behind schedule then, what they did have up and running at the time sure looked a hell of a lot better than the old system.

      Are you an air traffic controller? The salient question is not whether the Raytheon system looks better, but whether it works better. According to some of the people who actually have to work with the system in the real world on a daily basis, it doesn't work better.

      The old system wasn't pretty, or even the most reliable, but at least its most common failure mode leaves radar data on the screen, albeit without flight or transponder information. The STARS system, according to the DOT memo linked at the top, sometimes fails to display some planes AT ALL which seems a much, much more serious failure mode. I also wonder if STARS can suffer a computer outage and still display unadorned radar data (as the existing system typically can), or if it's entirely and totally computer dependent.


    • Maybe it's hack-proof the same way my old K6-233 machine is hack-proof?

      It isn't connected to the internet.

    • And I've heard that STARS has bugs that Raytheon says they cannot fix, and yet they want more money to "fix bugs"?

      Fat chance they'll win ERAM.

    • by c_g12 ( 262068 )
      I interned at Raytheon in Canada, working on their Canadian version CAATS. One thing I was impressed about was that the software was prepared for system failure by having redundant servers, independently running processes, and Emergency Modes. At least NAV Canada isn't making the mistake of shoehorning in CAATS; they're progressively phasing it in and will run it in parallel with the old system for a while.
  • by vkg ( 158234 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @04:00PM (#3647701) Homepage
    It's the classic disaster scenario: the designers/programmers know it's hosed, the management forces them to ship anyway.

    You Have Been Warned.
  • by ViceClown ( 39698 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @04:02PM (#3647727) Homepage Journal
    I hate to suggest getting the courts involved because things seem to get bogged down there. Can the technicians - or better yet the public sue to block the FAA from using the new system? According to the article the FAA invoked their "emergency powers" to force the new system in place in Syracuse against the inspectors and certifiers' recomendations. This sounds like a horrible mess waiting to happen. Besides, if we grant the FAA emergency power - they might get crazy and build a death star! Ok, all kidding aside - I wonder if the public can sue to block the use of the new system until it actually passes tests and inspections. Anyone? Is this possible?????
    • >Can the technicians - or better yet the public >sue to block the FAA from using the new system?

      Why sue? The technicians themselves could have shown some backbone and refused to install the buggy system. (Ensuring that scabs don't install
      it anyway is a bit problematic, but it would instantly be bigger news).

      The public has all the power in the world, but absolutely NO consciousness of this. They could refuse to travel. One day would probably end the industry...

      It's not buggy enough to get the pilots' attention. If it was, not one single plane would take off. Scab pilot or no scab pilot.
      Well, the pilots with a deathwish would fly, but that's about it.

      Unfortunately, we as a society tend not to really want to change things or reduce the authority of bureaucracies, do we?

      • I would guess that having the techs get in the way would be a federal time to which real prison time, if not certainly a pain in the ass would be attached. I think it's time to write the congress persons in your areas.
  • by fishbowl ( 7759 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @04:07PM (#3647767)
    People who are versed in such matters, including FAA technicians and ATC's, have expressed strong concerns that this system is ready.

    They aren't serious enough to (a.) refuse to follow the order to install it, or (b.) refuse to report to work if it is installed. So, if there's ever a disaster directly caused by the known flaws in this system, they're part of the same conspiracy. Whoever made this decision should have done so with the understanding that if they're wrong, they might be held accountable for more than just negligence.

    But, people want that paycheck more than they want to protect human lives. So pilots won't be refusing to fly, ATC's won't be halting takeoffs, and FAA managers won't be yelling fire.

    If these people really cared, we'd be seeing empty skies like Sept 12th.

    So either the systems aren't all that bad, or the people who have the power to stop the madness immediately are chickenshits.

    Let's start in Syracuse. Why didn't these "FAA technicians" put their money where their mouth is, and throw their wooden shoes into the machinery? Because they didn't, they should be the first people to answer for any accident that comes from this flawed system. They capitualted, didn't they?

    • Obviously we don't know what exactly happend in Syracuse but Im sure pressure was brought to bear. If the FAA invoked it's emergency powers then Im sure the techs couldn't do anything about it. Throwing their wooden shoes into the machinery would probably constitute a federal crime, however, so Im sure the techs weren't too keen on going to jail. It's scary, however, that the FAA would invoked it's emergency powers during something other than an emergency just to force something out the door. This is horse shit. The techs have to certify systems for a reason. Over riding them defeats the purpose of having them there in the first place!
      • >Throwing their wooden shoes into the machinery
        >would probably constitute a federal crime,
        >however, so Im sure the techs weren't too keen
        >on going to jail.

        Then they didn't care enough... This is the essence of civil disobediance. Not defying authority in secret, hoping the status quo changes, but openly defying it, knowing that you do the noble thing by facing the consequences.

        No I honestly don't expect the FAA techs to give up their jobs and get arrested for what they believe in, any more than I expect everyone who smokes pot to speak up (or even to vote).

        But the bottom line is, they really don't think it's that dangerous, do they? If there was some *certainty* that the flaws in this system are dangerous enough to routinely cause air disasters,
        I bet you'd be seeing clear skies. Federal crime or no federal crime.

        Remember, you don't "just go to jail", you do get a hearing where you get to state your case. If *everyone* involved in this system had refused to take part in it, I think the FAA would be more interested in keeping the story OUT of the press and OUT of a courtroom.

        As it happens, it's just a sidebar story in the travel section. The system may nor be ready for production, but it's not bad enough for the whole industry to walk off, ask for the head of the person responsible, and march on the capitol steps either, now is it?

        Wake me up when it's front page news.

        • Ok, I just read the memo to the FAA administrator regarding the state of the situation. The next site to get the new system is Philadelphia which is where I live. This is now an escallated issue for me and local news outlets are going to hear about it. Oh boy, here we go... :-)

          Cheerios, - JP
    • Perhaps you should ask people who lived through the Reagan era. It was pretty clear then that Republican governments will do anything, up to and including bringing the millitary in, to force policies down ATCs throats.
  • by 1984 ( 56406 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @04:07PM (#3647769)
    ...or if it has more or less than existing systems (and workflows).

    It's: "Is there a net decrease in aircraft safety during movements?"

    If not, then it's not necessarily an issue.
  • by singularity ( 2031 ) <nowalmart AT gmail DOT com> on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @04:11PM (#3647809) Homepage Journal
    I read an article about a year ago (I wish I could find it now) that talked about radar systems at smaller airports.

    Two systems had been developed, one by some guy who worked at such a smaller airport, and one was developed by someone like Raytheon Co.

    The system was basically this: The smaller airport would be fed the radar system from a nearby large airport. So if you were flying into Bowman Field, in Louisville, KY, they would be getting fed the signal from Louisville International Airport (SDF). It allowed smaller airports to have the technology of larger airports without having to expend as much money to get it.

    The gentlemen who had developed his sytem basically used existing wiring coming from the larger airport and simply sent the signal across that. He hooked up a screen, and had a perfectly good signal. The FAA went on to ask him (he was an FAA employee already) to develop the technology for wide-spread deployment, which he did.

    Along comes Raytheon Co. (or whomever the company was) and decides that is a lucritive contract to get. The company comes up with a system costing about ten times as much and about 80% as effective.

    Who does the FAA end up going with? Let me answer the question this way: The FAA emplyee did not contribute to any campaigns.
    • Close.... (Score:2, Informative)

      by DesScorp ( 410532 )
      Usually, the connection is not hardwired, but transmitted from one site to another. I'm an IT Manager at a regional airport, and that's the system we use. We have a large Air Force base only 10 minutes away, and they got expensive upgrades before we did, so they basically just transmit their ATC data on over to us via microwave. This is not unusual. This kind of resource sharing is pretty common between military and civilian installations. We have have an Air National Guard squadron here as well, and we also share resources with them (firefighting in particular). It just makes more sense that way.

      As for the new ATC system, I think any kind of mission critical system should be Unix based. As much as I like Linux, I'd still feel better with a QNX type system that goes down perhaps once a year or so. You have to wonder what the procurement people are thinking sometimes.....
    • What you're talking about is called a BRITE scope. Basically it's used for smaller airports in the vicinity of the radar from larger airports. It's basically a repeater of the radar display from the larger airport, just slid over and centered over the smaller airport.

      This has some operational advantages (the biggest being that there's a radar display of local traffic, obviously), but has some glaring deficiencies. Basically it's used in areas where traffic loads don't justify the upkeep and maintenance of a radar installation. Contrary to popular belief, most smaller airports don't have any radar coverage. Airplanes can still operate safely in a non-radar environment, even while "in the clouds" (or IMC as it's called), there's just a different set of rules to follow.
    • One of these systems (there are several) is called TARDIS--Terminal Area Radar DISplay, IIRC. We have one at Westheimer Airport in Norman, OK. Good points: it helps (tremendously at times) with situational awareness. It tells the controllers where to look for the traffic they can't see. It tells the controllers where to find the traffic that just reported "over the river" (they never are, they're just reporting ahead for better positioning, or lost). Bad points are, the system doesn't update rapidly enough to be used for guidance in the terminal area. It drops traffic. It freezes, requiring a reset. It does both of these more than an approved radar display. It is based on ARTCC (Air Route Traffic Control Center) radar, not terminal radar, so coverage is often lacking. A few other things I can't think of offhand. Short answer is that it works well as a situational awareness tool at airports not requiring radar, but if radar is necessary, you have to install a much more complex (and expensive) system.

      To put things in perspective, Westheimer is the third busiest public-use airport in Oklahoma, losing only to OKC-Will Rogers and Tulsa World. There is high-density student training at Westheimer, and operations often exceed 1000/day. Traffic ranges from Cessna 150's to Beech Barons to Citation X's to T-38's, with a smattering of helicopters thrown in the keep things interesting. The airport is served by several instrument approaches, including a localizer, and is scheduled to get an ILS in a couple of years; an ILS allows traffic to descend to 200' above ground before breaking out of the clouds. In spite of this, Westheimer does not warrant radar.

      Short answer here is that yes, Joe Blow's system may be cheaper, and may work well enough for a VFR tower like Bowman or Westheimer, but you need a lot more for any environment that actually needs radar.

      --Dave Buckles, CP-ASMEL, Instrument Airplane, CFI (double-I checkride on Monday! Woo-hoo!)

  • by sphealey ( 2855 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @04:12PM (#3647828)
    Here's an interesting article from the New Yorker [] discussing why high-tech screens may not be the best solution for problems like ATC.

    Avweb [] has also had some interesting articles about England's experiement with new ATC systems.


  • by RailGunner ( 554645 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @04:13PM (#3647842) Journal
    This gives a whole new meaning to Blue Screen of Death..
  • Raytheon Canada (Score:4, Informative)

    by asavage ( 548758 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @04:15PM (#3647856)
    Raytheon Canada [] has developed Canadian Automated Air Traffic System (CAATS) and Military Automated Air Traffic System (MAATS) for a Nav canada contract and are currently selling it to other countries as well. The software works really well (I have seen it firsthand). It was developed in Richmond, BC.
  • by Kagato ( 116051 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @04:15PM (#3647862)
    The problem with STARS is they have to introduce a whole new way of doing everything. I saw a neat discovery channel thing on it and they showed the simulated testing. (It failed certain parts of the testing by the way.)

    Here's my gripe. The air traffic control system has been sucking the big one since the 80s (or even before that.) Old technology layered with even older technology. Every other year dateline or 60 minutes does a story on how much it all sucks. Alright, so what's the solution?

    Well, according to the contracting some new whiz bang solution that is the end all of be all. So where are we, a couple billion down the hole for the a POS.

    What needed to happen is not a total whiz bang solution. It needed to start with a system that emulated everything that the current system did using current technology. Something modular (so you could add new features later on) and something that could scale to meet larger needs. Oh, and something that could have been rolled a good ten years ago.

    But noooo, that's too simple, and doesn't put a couple billion into the contractors pocket. Of course the ass clowns in congress are just as much to blame as they approved this.
  • Flight Safety. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by lionchild ( 581331 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @04:28PM (#3647969) Journal
    I'll try not to stray offtopic here.

    In the past, I've flown alot for business. I enjoy flying, actually, even in some of the cramped up economy spaces.

    Before 9/11, I wasn't overly concerned about our planes running into things. The skyes are awfully big up there, and cities, aside from the obvious ones like NY and LA, are pretty easy to miss or avoid with all the land between them.

    And as I think about it, the one thing that takes away my fears about a plane running into something, is that guy in the very front seat of the bus. Y'see, I know several pilots, and none of them are foolish enough to believe the ATC, when they're looking out the front of the plane and see a building comming at them quickly.

    These are men and women who have, (proportedly), been highly trained and qualified to get us from point A to point B, safely. And I know most, if hopefully not all of them are smart enough to make good decisions when what they see doesn't match what the ATC is telling them.

    In the same vein, there are men and women, who hopefully have good training and good instincts about being ATC's, that when a bug comes up, they're smarter than it is, and will make decisions that avoid the loss of life and property.

    Sometimes, alas, you must trust the User to do the right thing. And in this case, we get Trained Users to do the job. Let them do their job.
    • ATC does not separate planes from buildings.

      Or even other planes in certain circumstances. That's the pilot's responsibility at all times: see and avoid. Pilots are real good at it. That's why you don't hear about many mid-air collisions anymore, especially on airliners with the high-tech boxes that call out known traffic, and even bark out instructions on how to move out of the way (TCAS.)

  • FUD (Score:3, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @04:28PM (#3647970)
    I worked close to this project (down the hall) for many years. Believe me, STARS has been tested for the past 4 years at least. They FAA has several phases of tests that they perform on new equipment that can take many years to complete. The FAA wouldn't let this out the door if it was not ready and not necessary to replace all the old equipment out in the field that is falling apart, and older than many people who read Slashdot.

    Of course, the air traffic controller's union is upset about this. Most air traffic controllers have a very short career (burn-out) and don't want to have to learn a new way of doing things.

  • by peterdaly ( 123554 ) <petedaly AT ix DOT netcom DOT com> on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @04:29PM (#3647979)
    -- quote
    According to the article the FAA invoked their "emergency powers" to force the new system in place in Syracuse against the inspectors and certifiers' recomendations. This sounds like a horrible mess waiting to happen.

    Well, I work in a building right in line with the SYR main runway. I can tell how lined up a plane is by what section of the parking lot they fly over (we are talking a 20 car lot.) The planes are so close I can see which ones need to be repainted or washed.

    So far...I'm still alive, that's a good sign. Also, recently I have seen some planes lining up with the runway much closer than before, I wonder if that means the controllers can handle the traffic better? That would be a good sign for if the system as a whole if it is rolled out in other places.

    Anyway, when the system in SYR has problems, I'll be either the first...or notify slashdot.

    • At the point that they're that close, it's all on the pilots as to where they land. The controller will tell them to circle until it's their turn to land.

      In busier airports at night (think LAX, DFW, ATL) you can see the planes lined up 2 minutes apart. That's what the controllers do. The pilots are responsible for centering themselves on the runway, and landing without crashing into the ground.
  • I wonder if they're pushing it through because the new software has some nice government supplied code to send the Air Force a fax in the case of a dangerously misdirected plane. If the system does that, then the use of the emergency powers act would be justified because the new system provides "critical homeland security" - not that they'll tell us about it or anything.

    One bug later, and your plane is reported as speeding towards the Sears tower and you're shot down by a fighter craft.

  • by Kris Warkentin ( 15136 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @04:38PM (#3648062) Homepage
    CAATS, the Canadian Automated Air Traffic System is also done by Raytheon. It's also a huge mess of horribly obfuscated ADA code that has been in development for >10 years. It's overbudget, full of bugs and a perfect example of what NOT to do with a software project. I mean, more than 10 years into a project and their still changing design documents and interfaces? No one understands it. It's just a big cash cow for Raytheon to milk for as long as possible with their $100k/year consultants.

    If it ever ships (which I doubt), I sure won't be flying anywhere. I'm considering buying Raytheon stock though...they seem to have several licenses to print money.
  • Amtrak [], Greyhound [], Russian Space Agency [] and in the worst case scenario, Specialized [] (my favorite mode of transportation).
  • ... at least on the client.
    I'm an American expat living in Canada and pursuing a recreational license here. During the tower tour (which was basically 'Meet your Air Traffic Controllers' so we could appreciate how hard their job is - and it IS hard), I noticed that all the computers in the tower ran Windows.

    I'm pretty sure the server is some antique IBM mainframe, and I'd still trust my life to it, compared to a Windows machine that might go down at any time, but if it's a client/server system, they both have to work for it to make any difference.

    This makes me very hesitant to fly into any airport in Canada that can't be run manually (Toronto comes to mind... but that's always been a crappy place to fly into anyway).

    On the upside, if some crappy Windows Pee Cee can access the ATC radar, then perhaps it would be conceivable to put (read-only) ATC terminals in the cockpits of small planes. THAT would SAVE lives.

    Anyone at the FAA or Transport Canada listening?
  • 1.7 Billion dollars? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by joshv ( 13017 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @04:46PM (#3648133)
    We need a new way of conducting business. If you used off the shelf components and standard programming environments I cannot possibly imagine how you could spend 1.7 billion and under deliver. I imagine that Raytheon decided that in order to enrich the corporate coffers they needs some proprietary hardware and weird development environments noone but Raytheon employees are familiar with.

    It's a shame really. Yes, this a complex problem, but it's just not a billion dollar problem. The issue is that the government's been asking the wrong people to solve it.

    What they should have done is approached some small to midsized software design shops and asked them for initial estimates and designs. Give the top 10 of those $1 million each to flesh out the design and prototype it.

    Then take the pick of the litter and run with it. I betcha the end result would work better and cost less than the POS raytheon delivered.


    Wonder what incidents the security holes in this wonderful flying elephant are...
  • by rufusdufus ( 450462 ) on Wednesday June 05, 2002 @04:52PM (#3648179)
    I am a private pilot. Even if ATC completely shut down aircraft would not start falling out of the sky. Airplanes are flown by pilots who are trained to operate the aircraft completely independently from air traffic control.

    Think of air-traffic control as stop-lights for automobiles; when the stop lights go down, do traffic accidents start happening? No, you just get a little less efficient traffic flow (in some cases it gets more efficent...). Drivers know how to take turns just like they do at stop signs.

    Analagously, pilots know how to take turns and fly safe just like they do at 90% of the airports in the world that don't have 24x7 air traffic control.

    If the street lights start malfunctioning and giving wacky signals, the hazard of accidents might go up, but would not neccessariy lead to catastrophe.
    The ananology for aicraft is even stronger: if an ATC controller went mad and decided to purposefully cause an accident, he probably would not succeed since he would have to fool two pilots who are trained to be wary of ATCs command and to overrride them when they are in error.

    Bottom line: airplanes are flown by pilots, not traffic controllers, so breathe easy.
      • when the stop lights go down, do traffic accidents start happening?

      This depends greatly on where you live and what kind of idiots are driving on your streets. It's not very common for traffic lights to lose power, however, every time it has happened in Raleigh NC there have been wrecks.

      By law, without the light, that white stripe of paint (the "stop line") becomes your stop sign, but almost no one pays that any attention.
  • Baseline magazine [], a periodical dedicated to IT management, covered the new FAA STARS system from an IT project management point of view in a recent issue.

    You can view the case study on-line [], or download the PDF file [].

    I found it to be a very good in-depth article delving into many of the issues surrounding such a massive IT project.
  • by hfk ( 539863 ) on Thursday June 06, 2002 @08:38AM (#3651606)
    (Before I get started with my critique of the article and my take on the STARS issue, for those of you more interested in the fact that Sun/Solaris is at the heart of STARS, skip to the bottom of the page)

    I've been an Air Traffic Control Radar Tech for the better part of 20 years and, after watching/reading years worth of inaccurate FAA Technology reporting (such as this CNN piece) I'm convinced that aviation journalists are, for the most part, clueless about the technology that they report on. Combine ignorance of that calibre with the natural alarmist tendencies of journalists and editors seeking incresed circulation/viewership and you end up with pieces like this one. Alternatively, and even more unpalatable, it might just be that all journalists are mere dilettantes, and actually have the barest grasp of the issues about which they write. Perhaps, as radar/air traffic control is my field of expertise, I'm only accutely aware of their shortcomings in that field, whereas they may be just as ignorant in many, or all, others. I hope that's not the case, but reporting that's as slipshod as this makes one wonder.... The fourth estate is just as prone to error and exaggeration as the other three.

    Obviously, there are problems with STARS, just as the DOT IG report describes. There are problems with ALL new major FAA systems. I've been involved with the ASR-11 program, off and on, for several years now. The ASR-11 is a short range (airport) radar that, like STARS, is a Raytheon product and is currently undergoing a variety of tests to assess it's suitability for inclusion into the Air Traffic Control system. The STARS and ASR-11 sagas have similarites: both have been undergoing testing and some forms of development for years. A portion of the agony involved in equipment acceptance is rooted in the diverging interests of the vendor and the FAA. The vendor claims that the system will perform in such and such a manner, and it's up to the FAA to verify that their claim is accurate. If the claim cannot be verified, then a fix must be proposed, then agreed upon, then implemented, and then verified. Of course, the vendor and the FAA will interpret various aspects of the contract differently, and therefore problem resolution can, and apparently often does, involve disputes about funding: who pays for the resolution? does the FAA cough up more cash or does the vendor eat the cost? I don't use the word 'agony' as hyperbole: it most certaily is agonising for both the vendor and the FAA. However, don't be too quick to blame beuracrats. The FAA is attempting to walk a very fine line: save costs where possible, and therefore give the taxpayer better bang for the buck, while ensuring that the system in question is as safe, and reliable, as possible. Of course, altruism isn't the only motivating factor: I imagine that Congressional oversight certainly helps, particularly when it comes to bang-for-the-buck considerations. However, I genuinely believe that engineering/testing personel, system maintainers, and air traffic controllers are supremely interested in the safety of the flying public, and act accordingly.

    Now on to a critique of the CNN piece:

    "The only STARS system now in use, in El Paso, Texas, has been plagued with problems, according to.....the Professional Airways Systems Specialists, the union that represents the FAA employees who certify and maintain air traffic control equipment."

    My experience with the ASR-11 project has convinced me that the Technician's Union, Professional Airways Systems Specialists (PASS), doesn't give much of a shit about truly relevant equipment funtionality issues. I don't doubt that their assessment of STARS suffers from the same self-interested myopia. As I've heard it told, a Union's involvement in an early round of STARS testing turned into a fiasco, and a potentially significant opportunity was squandered. I've also heard that the union has learned a bit from the experience and that, perhaps, future Union involvement in STARS testing will be more productive. I have direct knowledge of some ridiculous Union demands vis-a-vis the ASR-11.

    Unions are a more than a mild source of irritation to me, for a variety of reasons the reader could likely care less about. However, there is one aspect of unions that is crucial to this and other stories involving unions: a union, even one which whose membership comprises a fraction of the 'baragining unit' employees (those who could be in the union if they chose to be) is the sole representative of that group of employees and management looks to the union for all things to do with the employees, and seeks union write-off of all employee-related matters. Journalists follow the same pattern: they spout whatever line the union gives them as if the union actually, rather than technically, spoke for all the employees. If you follow aviation reporting you will see this proven true time and time again.

    An aside: my opinion of the Union has nothing to do with my opinion of the average FAA technician. Anyone that's been exposed to unions understands that the official union position often bears no resemblance to the employee's position. FAA technicians are highly trained and, generally, highly motivated, and appreciate the serious nature of their profession.

    "The old system remained in place as a backup, because "tower managers stated controllers were not comfortable relying solely on STARS,"....

    Now this really turns my stomach....the fact that the 'old system' remains in place is somehow condemnation of the new system (STARS). Of course the old system remains in place as a backup: it would be grossly negligent to uneccesarily remove it while testing on the new system continues. What's so stomach-churning is that this hypocritical journalist, who obviously has a minimal grasp of the complexity of FAA equipment and the air traffic control system, would very likely be the among the first to accuse the FAA of negligence if the 'old system' was uneccesarily discarded and a failure of the new system resulted in crashed planes and mangled bodies. Look, the FAA KNOWS that, while the 'old system' is technically, well, OLD, it's tried and true and, therefore, safe. Obviously they're going to want to retain it as a backup, especially considering the birth pangs that STARS is experiencing. Keep in mind that STARS is not merely a new hardware backbone: it's a completely new interface as well, so it's new to both Air Traffic Controllers and Maintenance personel. Air Traffic Controllers take their responsibility to the flying public VERY seriously, and they're almost always, if not always, going to err on the side of caution. Any one that flies should appreciate this fact.

    "Union vice president Tom Brantley said the radar doesn't always work, and it may require several minutes before controllers realize the problem. In addition, he said, the system has failed several diagnostic tests."

    I don't know what the hell this means: STARS isn't a radar, of course, so I assume that he must be referring to the radar/s that feed the STARS. I have heard that there is an issue with lag under certain unique and rare circumstances. Those issues will most certainy be resolved prior to acceptance, or at least examined for validity. More to the point, this sentance is a perfect example of a cursory treatment of a very complex matter by someone that obviously has no idea what he's talking about (I mean the journalist, not the Union VP). It's confusing and meaningless, rather than informative and clarifying. Sloppy reporting, at best.

    Now, back to a subject perhaps more interesting to the average geek: STARS systems are based on Sun/Solaris boxes, and LOTS of them. STARS, and other imminent and existing FAA systems, such as the ASR-11 (an airport/short-range radar), the WSP (Weather System Processor), all use Sun boxes. I believe that, between the Department of Defense (DOD) and the FAA there are going to be hundreds of STARS, and a couple of hundred ASR-11s, and over the next 5 to 15 years many hundreds, if not thousands, of technicians will receive various forms of Unix training. For several years the FAA has offered a three-week instructor-led Unix course and, I believe, requires this course as a prerequisite for those technicians who will be taking the STARS and ASR-11 Maintenance courses, among others. The course is based on Redhat and PCs, rather then Ultra or Sunblade and Solaris, which is a bit of a sore spot with me, as it would obviously be advantageous for the tech to know about OBP abd other Sparc/Solaris-unique issues. However, the FAA has systems that use other flavors of Unix (AIX and/or HP-UX) so it might not be ideal to use Sparc/Solaris alone, but I can't help but think that it would be better than using Redhat/PC. Anyway, perhaps I'll write a bit more about this and try to post it one day, to see what others here think...

    Getting back on track, the perceptive reader will have already realized that the training of hundreds/thousands of military and FAA technicians in the ways of Unix will be good for the Unix community. I can use myself as an example: I've been working with the ASR-11 program for three years: my first contact with Unix was three years ago at the Raytheon ASR-11 school. Now I use a laptop running Redhat (previoulsy Solaris x86, but couldn't get the darn NIC to work), an Ultra 5 and a Sparc 5 on my desk/s at work, and at home I've two PCs with two drive-racks per PC, and swap between RedHat, Solaris x86, and XP. The FAA has also been generous enough to spring for a Sunkey memebership for me and I'm going to be doing as much training as possible this year. I'll have a go at the Sun SysAdmin tests later this year and then top it all of with the Sun Network Admin test. I'd then like to move into a part-time job with some local business that uses Sun boxes. I've discussed the possiblity with various classmates in the Sun courses I've taken, and apparently, and understandably, there's little demand for part-time network administrators. however, I'll settle for less: I'd really like the opportunity to hone my skills in the private sector, just to see how far my interest and talents might take me (perhaps out of civil sevice altogether and into the private sector full time? a fantasy perhaps, but one I occasionally indulge in).

    To sum-up: the fallout from the implementation of these new systems will result in an even more widespread interest in Unix, and an enlarged geek contingent.

"Take that, you hostile sons-of-bitches!" -- James Coburn, in the finale of _The_President's_Analyst_