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UK Controllers Say Air Traffic System 'Not Safe'

timothy posted more than 3 years ago | from the oh-what's-a-little-safety dept.

Transportation 117

Jack Spine writes "Air traffic control technology being implemented in one of the major transport hubs in the UK is 'not safe,' according to air traffic controllers. The electronic flight data system (EFD) being phased in at Glasgow Prestwick Airport is too slow to handle real-time inputs, and could not cope with an outage that isolated it from the main air traffic system. Controllers had to scramble to handle the situation. Good luck if you're traveling to the UK anytime soon."

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aye that's (0, Offtopic)

NoSleepDemon (1521253) | more than 3 years ago | (#35371298)

pure fockn shite eh

Re:aye that's (1)

Canazza (1428553) | more than 3 years ago | (#35372314)

It's okay, it's only Prestwick. It's hardly a 'high volume' airport. You'll only go there if you're flying Ryanair.

Re:aye that's (1)

surgen (1145449) | more than 3 years ago | (#35372412)

Yep, 70% of UK airspace and/or (depending on which center) the Northeastern Atlantic Ocean doesn't really matter.

Re:aye that's (1)

NoSleepDemon (1521253) | more than 3 years ago | (#35372494)

You know it's funny, despite having flown all around the UK and parts of Europe, I've never once flown with Ryan Air; it's usually been Easy Jet. Ryan Air always goes to places no one gives a toss about like Ireland or Glasgow.

Re:aye that's (1)

Nick Ives (317) | more than 3 years ago | (#35373784)

Prestwick is where all of the northern UK en route traffic is controlled, it's nothing to do with the aerodrome. Southern UK airspace is controlled at Swanwick in Southampton (referred to as CTC in that pprune thread). This being /., the terrible summary doesn't make that clear.

Basically what's going on here is that NATS (it used to stand for National Air Traffic Services, now it's just NATS) is trying to save a few quid by automating the job of the Air Traffic Services Assistants (ATSA). Information about flights used to be written up on paper strips for the Air Traffic Controllers, now it's put in a computer system.

Re:aye that's (2)

hairyfeet (841228) | more than 3 years ago | (#35373970)

What I love is the picture in TFA. I mean could they get ANY more perfect when talking about a system being too slow than to show a couple of old folks outside the airport struggling with their luggage? Hell old folks struggling with baggage should be the picture under "too damned slow" in the dictionary!

As for TFA I'd love for someone to play "follow the money" and see whose palm got greased to pick this system. From the looks of it they picked a system used for BFE middle of nowhere airports and it simply doesn't scale well, which you'd think they would have wanted to see some realtime tests with the amount of data they are cranking before signing the check. My guess is someone there got a really nice "bonus" for picking this system over the others, safety be damned.

Re:aye that's (1)

mountaineer76 (941902) | more than 3 years ago | (#35374240)

it also shows a picture of entirely the wrong airport - the article is talking about Glasgow Prestwick airport, the picture shows Glasgow International airport - they're about 30-odd miles apart!

Been there before (2)

mbone (558574) | more than 3 years ago | (#35371376)

I can remember when the US Air Traffic Controllers said that our ATC system was unsafe. Reagan fired them. (True, when they struck, but still...)

Re:Been there before (1, Insightful)

DNS-and-BIND (461968) | more than 3 years ago | (#35372552)

And...uh...OK, how many planes crashed as a result? What, exactly, was the state of computer technology in 1981? Oh wait, the whole thing was a union power play? Let's all remember, Reagan fired the controllers when they voluntarily walked off the job in violation of federal law (they were government employees, imagine US Marines walking off the job by comparison), demanded $10,000 raises (in 1981 dollars), and a French style 32-hour work week. Huh. It's as if the whole "not safe" thing was a cassus belli> bullshit excuse for massive raises at the taxpayers' expense (the means you and me.) Imagine the world if public sector unions had instead won this battle and felt free to impose their selfish wants on the rest of us. Scary, eh?

Re:Been there before (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35375198)

Nothing like rearranging the truth to fit the current anti-union bashing

Re:Been there before (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35376746)

Great. More anti-union bullshit from a simple reactionary mind. Nice job with absurdity, invoking both the US military and the French in one sentence. It couldn't possibly have had anything to do with the Reagan administration being obstinate and allowing the union contract to expire for the express purpose of forcing a confrontation, could it? A confrontation, by the way, that's constantly celebrated by idiots who don't realize how it contributed to the lowering of worker pay and economic conditions that continues to this day--or do you believe one-sided negotiations are somehow fair? I have some stuff to sell you if you do.

The notion that spending 40 hours staring at a radar screen is less safe than spending 32 hours doing so doesn't happen to fit with your world view, and safety be damned. If Reagan and company were really concerned that striking was a safety issue, then why compound it by ensuring that those people wouldn't go back to work? They didn't care about safety either--what they did do was engage in bad-faith negotiations and dishonesty, designed specifically to force their little foolish theater for you. Ever contemplate that notion? Probably not--but go on defending the interests of millionaires and billionaires at the expense of 99% of the population of the country, including yourself, most likely. Somehow their very, very selfish wants are superior to the wants of working people, right?

As to the issue at hand, Eurpoe has a privatized (read--corporate-owned) air traffic control system. I thought things like that were somehow perfect and totally immune to safety issues. Ayn Rand and the libertarians say that, so it must be true. How to fix it? I know--how about they fire the people who point out the safety issues? It's the American way, maybe it'll work there too.

Re:Been there before (1)

Hognoxious (631665) | more than 3 years ago | (#35376920)

Eurpoe has a privatized (read--corporate-owned) air traffic control system.

If you mean Europe, it has no such thing. France's is state owned. Britain's is partially private. Austria's appears to be private but my German is crap these days.

Re:Been there before (3, Insightful)

drsquare (530038) | more than 3 years ago | (#35377074)

Imagine the world if public sector unions had instead won this battle and felt free to impose their selfish wants on the rest of us. Scary, eh?

Yeah, America might have full employment, a better work-life balance, and higher incomes.

But I'm sure you're much better off after thirty years of Reaganomics...

Re:Been there before (1)

definate (876684) | more than 3 years ago | (#35377114)

imagine US Marines walking off the job by comparison

I would fucking love that. Have the military on voluntary contracts, where they can't be forced to stay, and I think you'd find this fucking war would be over by now. Hell, it might not have even gotten off the ground. Imagine that, billions in resources, countless lives, damaged relationships, all saved, by allowing the people in the military freedom.

Re:Been there before (1)

L4t3r4lu5 (1216702) | more than 3 years ago | (#35378078)

!War. War was never declared by congress.

You are currently involved in an invasion.

Re:Been there before (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35377366)

Very sorry that we have expectations to be paid appropriately for having a perfect record of not making any mistakes on the job whilst doing long bouts of stressful repetitive mind games or face being fired and even criminally charged, perhaps if this is a capitalist system we should correspond with a reduction quality of a work in response to a reduction in price for our services? In regards to this specific article, the complaints about ATSOCAS are objective and quantifiable, not vague notions used to push an ulterior agenda especially when a decent automated system would actually make our lives easier. Why wouldn't we want that?

Made the mistake. (5, Informative)

140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) | more than 3 years ago | (#35371378)

I made the stupid mistake of actually reading the fine article. It seems to suggest that the old system of using paper strips and flight names is faster, more reliable and has bigger capacity to handle real time input than the new one based on computers and "smart stripes". Should have waited for people to read and post comments, that way some kind soul would have posted something easier to understand.

"java" (1, Informative)

rubycodez (864176) | more than 3 years ago | (#35371410)

the new system runs Linux, but the article also says "java". no surprise that a j2ee system would turn out be a bloated, slow steaming pile of dung. Sure, efficient coding can be done in Java, but far too often too many layers of canned commercial libraries from a certain j2ee framework vendor are employed

Re:"java" (3, Informative)

trollertron3000 (1940942) | more than 3 years ago | (#35371566)

This can be true but a language doesn't design a bad system, a software engineer does. Many reliable systems have been built using Java and reside in hospitals, transportation, and power infrastructure. I can't blame a language or runtime for piss poor design. Also keep in mind not all Java applications or runtimes are the same.

Searching for more on this issue I found a post on how ATC insiders view it on the PPrune forums (UK site for professional pilots): http://www.pprune.org/atc-issues/427001-efd-scottish.html [pprune.org]

Kind of an interesting behind the scenes look.

Re:"java" (1)

JamesP (688957) | more than 3 years ago | (#35371706)

Yeah, but the issue is: the main reason for choosing Java is because the architect/developers are incompetent in anything else

Of course you can have a high-performance system in Java, IBM Watson was mainly in Java EXCEPT for the critical parts, because of speed (and they used Prolog as well).

Probably for ATC speed is not a problem IF you use the correct algorithms, which they probably didn't.

Re:"java" (2)

LWATCDR (28044) | more than 3 years ago | (#35372970)

Actually you are wrong.
The Java haters are so funny. I have worked in Pascal, Fortran, Modula-2, c, c++, objective c, JAVA, BASIC, COBOL, PHP, Perl, and Python.
And for a desktop app that deals with a database I like Java the best. The problems you see with Java tend to be caused by the fact it is so easy to get a program to work even if you use terrible design. BTW yes I know about javascript and HTML5 but those are really new and frankly do not have the control and performance that Java gives a programmer IMHO.
I can see one reason for using this that you probably missed., portability. The US ATC system was so tightly designed that we where stuck with using old slow computers for years. The old system just couldn't be run on modern hardware.
Java should prevent that issue. As long as you can make a JVM work you are good. You could in theory use c++ and QT or Mono but I would consider those higher risk decisions than Java.

Re:"java" (1)

JamesP (688957) | more than 3 years ago | (#35373106)

Actually you are wrong.
The Java haters are so funny. I have worked in Pascal, Fortran, Modula-2, c, c++, objective c, JAVA, BASIC, COBOL, PHP, Perl, and Python.

SO? You may have worked, but 99% of java programmers haven't.

And for a desktop app that deals with a database I like Java the best.

Fair enough.

The problems you see with Java tend to be caused by the fact it is so easy to get a program to work even if you use terrible design. BTW yes I know about javascript and HTML5 but those are really new and frankly do not have the control and performance that Java gives a programmer IMHO.

Yes, you probably can get the control you want if you dig through a mess of an API, as opposed to clean an to-the-point actions of other languages/standard libraries (and yes, not even C# is that contrived).

I can see one reason for using this that you probably missed., portability. The US ATC system was so tightly designed that we where stuck with using old slow computers for years. The old system just couldn't be run on modern hardware.
Java should prevent that issue. As long as you can make a JVM work you are good. You could in theory use c++ and QT or Mono but I would consider those higher risk decisions than Java.

Yes, portability is important. And even though Java is supposed to facilitate this, It still can be painful even on a desktop situation!

Interestingly enough, I've come to know of (critical) systems running very old codebases (on Pascal) on modern hardware (of course with a recompile). (Yes, I'd take Java any day over that mess)

Javapoo (1)

ChucktheMan (1991030) | more than 3 years ago | (#35376264)

I first used Java at introduction, and gave it up as a bad idea. Others are more forgiving, so now I have three projects with vendor supplied sucware(TM) written in Java. I hope someday to see one of them achieve 75% of promised capacity, and 25% of the specified MTBF. I am sure there is one good Java programmer out there, but he is nowhere near any of our projects. Give me TCL/Tk over Java any day of the week.

Re:"java" (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35373388)

I don't actually imagine it has anything (maybe a small part) to do with algorithms, and mostly to do with interface. How can you organize, sort, and view strips of paper? Any way you effing want. How about rows in a table... well, any way it pleased/was convenient for the coders to do.

The affordances of physical pieces in this system cannot be understated, and the familiarity with an existing system that works is a non-trivial point in this whole case.

Technology *can* make tasks easier, but it doesn't do so necessarily. I smell a management-enforced tool swap, sold to managers who don't want to be embarrassed by the revelation that they spent millions of dollars for software that doesn't work.

Re:"java" (1)

JamesP (688957) | more than 3 years ago | (#35373616)

thanks for the very insightful comment

And most importantly, strips of paper may be a good idea on the physical world.

The developers may have tried to mimic the strips and it is not that simple on the computer screen, or did something not quite similar but a lot worse (for example more difficult to read)

Transporting analogies and usage models is very complicated

Re:"java" (1)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 3 years ago | (#35377588)

Electronic strips have been used across the industry for about fifteen years. They save a lot of manual labour because people had to write on them, and they save mistakes because hand writing can be misread. A convenient compromise is to use printed strips in the tower and electronic strips in the en-route and approach centres. The printed strips are easy to read and make great bookmarks ;)

Re:"java" (1)

countertrolling (1585477) | more than 3 years ago | (#35371806)

Many reliable systems have been built using Java and reside in hospitals, transportation, and power infrastructure.

A house of cards will stand forever, and may look very nice and stylish... until the first puff of wind comes along..

Re:"java" (1)

Nadaka (224565) | more than 3 years ago | (#35372528)

I don't get what you are saying here. Java is overall a very good language that is safe, reliable and fast. But it is not ideally fit for realtime systems. Most of the systems you mention would do well with Java. I would rather take an occasional pause for gc than a dangling pointer in unsafe memory or a vb nightmare.

Re:"java" (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35377774)

Actually you can build systems in Java using commodity hardware and open source software that are fit for high performance, low latency systems. For example: These guys have built a financial exchange that handles hundreds of thousands of contended transactions per second with very low latency: http://qconlondon.com/london-2010/presentation/LMAX+-+How+to+do+over+100K+contended+complex+business+transactions+per+second+at+less+than+1ms+latency [qconlondon.com]

The main problem I see with some Java applications, is that it is a popular language and a very large number of systems are built using it. Given that most software projects fail or don't meet expectations, you're going to find a lot of examples of bad Java systems, just as you would find a lot of examples of bad X, Y, Z systems if they had the same market penetration as Java.

Bad architects and programmers are the common factor in bad systems.

The right tool for the job (1)

mangu (126918) | more than 3 years ago | (#35371878)

I can't blame a language or runtime for piss poor design

You can blame the choice of a language ill suited to the task.

Java may not be the best choice for a real time environment, for one thing there's the garbage collection [oracle.com] to consider. A language that stops from time to time to perform some internal task isn't what I would choose for a time-critical system where human lives may be in danger.

Re:The right tool for the job (1)

trollertron3000 (1940942) | more than 3 years ago | (#35372114)

Now this I can tend to agree with but there are real time Java systems. I went looking for more information on the runtime and OS used for this EFD system but couldn't find any. Real time is not optional in this situation, IMHO. And when I see symptoms like "not fast enough", I tend to agree with you. They might have used a technology ill suited to the real time nature of ATC and that was the big mistake.

I just think it's too easy to go to that well, the Java is slow well. Those days are past in most cases. But real time? Sheesh that's a gamble I'm not willing to take myself.

Re:The right tool for the job (2)

LWATCDR (28044) | more than 3 years ago | (#35372992)

They are talking HUMAN realtime not microsecond jitter realtime.
You know like a text editor realtime.

Re:The right tool for the job (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35373944)

Guaranteeing an interactive response for fast UIs (ie. ~33 ms) still means the system is hard real time ... whether you're working with microseconds or milliseconds, if the best you can do is throw hardware and hacks at it till you think you can meet the requirements you're doing it wrong.

Re:The right tool for the job (1)

WaffleMonster (969671) | more than 3 years ago | (#35372402)

You can blame the choice of a language ill suited to the task. Java may not be the best choice for a real time environment, for one thing there's the garbage collection to consider. A language that stops from time to time to perform some internal task isn't what I would choose for a time-critical system where human lives may be in danger.

Personally I would be pissed if they did any heap allocations at all during steady state. Using a language which virtually denies one the right to breath without requiring a heap allocation is inexcusable.

Re:The right tool for the job (1)

jrumney (197329) | more than 3 years ago | (#35375386)

Incremental garbage collection has been around since at least Java 1.4. The runtime does not need to stop from time to time to perform internal tasks anymore if you know how to configure the JVM.

Re:"java" (2)

LordFolken (731855) | more than 3 years ago | (#35372252)

Java is the language taught to all these part-time it / project manager types of people. Its the only thing they know. This is why java has become a synonym for "Oh,OH, danger! Amateurs at work."

ATC Systems are highly political, i therefore doubt that the choice of language was up to the programmer. The project was probably cash-strapped, over budget, late etc. Now people are trying to force it down users throats.

In the forum you see a lot of discontent users, that reads to me like a classic project fail along the lines of: Boss:"We need to go digitial!" As to the how was never properly analyzed. And now people are stuck with a sub-standard system.

Its alarming to see this in the aviation industry. Its actually one of the more sane fields of it-work.

Re:"java" (1)

trollertron3000 (1940942) | more than 3 years ago | (#35372574)

Yeah agreed. I saw the same thing play out from the sidelines of SAIC with their FBI case file system debacle. You have to meet the users needs and too many of these large projects just go thundering down the path like a crazy elephant. Then they get to the end and ask if everything is good. Good? You just trampled what we do here!

In fairness to them I've been in meetings with government officials and seen displays of terrible ignorance and petty bickering over politics and power. Not once when I was building these systems was I asked if the users were consulted. Only the executives.

Re:"java" (2)

KnownIssues (1612961) | more than 3 years ago | (#35373226)

That link to pprune.org was truly educational. You tend to have this idealized image of "professional" fields like police, doctors, lawyers... air traffic controllers. Reading this forum thread showed how things operate not one bit differently than anywhere else. Workers blaming management for pushing through a project without being fully informed. "Old-timers" lamenting the fall of the old system and its need for personal experience and its replacement with a more automated system that requires new users to be less trained. Bitterness about the new young pups coming in with their business degress and flow charts and company cars instead of being able to work the machine with their own two hands. Training given on a pending-obsolete version of the software just to keep project dates. And I'm only page 2 of 12!

It's nice to be reminded that humans are humans everywhere.

Re:"java" (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35376362)

I wonder if that's even legal.

Several parts of the java environment forbid the use of their libraries/executables/source code in air traffic control systems (and nuclear plants)

http://java.sun.com/products/plugin/1.2/license.txt

Re:"java" (1)

Nadaka (224565) | more than 3 years ago | (#35371728)

Java can be incredibly fast and efficient if done properly. But it is not by any means a real time system without a seriously redesigned garbage collection system among other things.

The article does not mention j2ee though.

Re:"java" (1)

WaffleMonster (969671) | more than 3 years ago | (#35372220)

the new system runs Linux, but the article also says "java". no surprise that a j2ee system would turn out be a bloated, slow steaming pile of dung. Sure, efficient coding can be done in Java, but far too often too many layers of canned commercial libraries from a certain j2ee framework vendor are employed

Java...whaaa? WTF is a garbage collected language doing anywhere near ATC?

Re:"java" (1)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 3 years ago | (#35377606)

the new system runs Linux, but the article also says "java". no surprise that a j2ee system would turn out be a bloated, slow steaming pile of dung. Sure, efficient coding can be done in Java, but far too often too many layers of canned commercial libraries from a certain j2ee framework vendor are employed

Java...whaaa? WTF is a garbage collected language doing anywhere near ATC?

Why not? Buffer overflows are the killer (oh the stories I could tell...) and java doesn't have them the way C does.

Re:"java" (1)

tsotha (720379) | more than 3 years ago | (#35376164)

There's nothing wrong with java for this kind of system. I run a system written in java that handles tens of thousands of events per second in real time. Works like a charm. Real time systems are a bit harder to design, and failure modes have to be thought through more carefully, but that's independent of your choice of language. You have to think about whether or not you can tolerate GC pauses, but we get pauses typically on the order of 100ms, which is probably just fine for an application like the one in the article. Especially if the system they're replacing is based on "paper strips and flight names".

You're right about j2ee though. I have enough experience with j2ee I can't imagine where I would voluntarily use it.

Re:"java" (1)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 3 years ago | (#35377616)

The main problem with Java is that management try to get away with arrays of inexpensive programmers who try to use methodologies from different industries. One killer problem I have seen with OO in environments where there is a lot of data being transferred is over-reliance on instantiating objects for transient data. Like read, transform, write and dispose of objects where you could just keep N objects for every step and copy the contents between them. Its not as elegant but it reduces the amount of thrashing.

Re:Made the mistake. (2)

natehoy (1608657) | more than 3 years ago | (#35371722)

The phasing-in began on 28 January, but has suffered problems, including latency and screens not working, according to forum posts.

It may (or may not) take a controller longer to write a flight number down on a strip of paper and use that as their handoff device. But, once captured, handing off a flight is as simple as handing the strip to the controller you just transferred the flight to.. The strips on your board tell you which flights are yours to manage at the moment.

The computer should be able to do it faster and more efficiently and show you a nice list of flights on a screen, but if the computer starts slowing down or your screen fails, you're missing information you need RIGHT NOW to keep two planes from attempting to occupy the same airspace. Now you have to figure out which flights you are responsible for from memory, and whether flight 2345 has been handed off yet or not.

The old system is certainly less efficient than a computer. But you only need the system to be efficient enough to get you the information when you need it, no faster response time is needed. There's also a reliability component that is apparently not being met in this case. If the computer slows down (even occasionally) to a point that is slower than you need the information, or your screen fails, you're in trouble and so are the passengers on the flights in your zone of responsibility.

All things in aviation have multiple layers of safety backup. The paper-strip system is a backup / memory-aid for the controller. It helps the controller keep track of which flights are theirs, and it's pretty much not subject to failure. It's not fancy because it doesn't need to be, it just needs to work.

Trouble is, if you want to replace that with a computer, that's great, but the computer has to be as reliable as having strips of paper hanging about. So you need at least two computers at each station, one being a backup to the other, and even occasional slowdowns are unacceptable.

On 15 February, the IBM-based National Air Traffic Service system covering the UK stopped talking to EFD. Air traffic controllers at Prestwick scrambled to remedy the situation. Some people on days off had to go into work to try to move the traffic build-up, which caused numerous delays to flights

It states (not suggests) that the REAL problems came into the fore when the electronic communications that underlie the system failed. In other words, they had a system that was receiving no data, and had to fall back on the paper strip system, which they lacked the manpower on site to do effectively.

Not stated but probably also a problem was the fact that flights in progress were being tracked on the computer, and when those updates stopped coming in the controllers were actually missing information, so they had to quickly reconstruct everything on paper so they had a complete dataset to work with. Also not stated but probable was the possibility that manpower had already been reduced to take advantage of the efficiencies of the computer system, so they had to drag the people who ran the little strips of paper around back in to work in a hurry.

Re:Made the mistake. (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35375084)

Writing it down also means that you are forced to process the information.

Re:Made the mistake. (1)

autocracy (192714) | more than 3 years ago | (#35371836)

That is the case primarily because the system seems to have lagging displays and other indications of really shitty design.

Seems Like a Good... (1)

camperdave (969942) | more than 3 years ago | (#35372170)

This seems like a good place to deploy Siftables [youtube.com] . Each block gets assigned a plane, and the controller can manipulate them manually, like the current block and strip system. Each block can be updated dynamically to indicate fuel status, etc. When one controller hands off to another, they can physically hand over the block, ensuring awareness of who has responsibility.

Not just the UK (1)

Stenchwarrior (1335051) | more than 3 years ago | (#35371422)

This is an issue in a lot of places. Huffingtonpost did a story last year [huffingtonpost.com] about the systems in the U.S. and how old they are.

You would think this is one of those places where the technology would be constantly updated, but not so.

Re:Not just the UK (2)

natehoy (1608657) | more than 3 years ago | (#35371798)

But this isn't "old technology fails". This is a problem with the reliability of a NEW system they are trying to implement, and they had to fall back on the old system (handing around little strips of paper with flight numbers on them) in order to keep the operation running.

Technology is not constantly updated in ATC because controllers and pilots value reliability over new sexiness. So they tend to like to stick with what's worked well for years or decades rather than updating to the latest shiny every couple of years and trying to debug problems with it while flying about in metal tubes at hundreds of miles an hour with passengers onboard.

Call it paranoia if you like. I like the new shiny sexiness on my cell phone, but I want my instrument panel to be based on shit that works.

Re:Not just the UK (1)

Stenchwarrior (1335051) | more than 3 years ago | (#35371848)

Totally agree. But when a tower is using a computer system from the 60's? (not that this is the case with this particular story, but there are some out there like this) Reliable or not, I would like to think they are updating at least every 10 years to implement better safety features and what-not.

Re:Not just the UK (0)

GooberToo (74388) | more than 3 years ago | (#35373314)

Reliable or not, I would like to think they are updating at least every 10 years to implement better safety features and what-not.

I kid you not, about the only thing that changes in aviation is cost and an increase in the number of stupid regulations. The regulations are typically what drive ever increasing costs. The real problem is the FAA requires some serious overhauling.

Did you know you can by a clock from your local $1 store which is more reliable and accurate than the clock MANDATED in many aircraft because of regulations? Seriously. Did you know that a $400 FAA certificated clock is likely on par with what you could otherwise purchase for $20?

The FAA has lots of regulations on lights but none of it backed by science. Mostly they are regulations based strictly on stupidity. Seriously. And that $5 light bulb - can cost over $500. Seriously. The FAA knows full well that the colors they mandate are actually harder to see in bad weather. The FAA knows the colors they pick are more likely to create problems in a variety of situations. And yet, they don't change the regulations when it actually makes sense to do so.

Here's an example of FAA stupidity, which is the status quo. Plane crashes in bad weather, many, many miles from the airport. The co-pilot was color blind (yet medically tested to prove his condition is not a problem - medical fact). Crash was caused by pilot's failure (not copilot) to follow proper procedures. FAA cites the copilot at fault for failure to see the color colored lights at the airport. Reality is, the copilot was not flying. It was physically impossible for anyone to see the lights given the weather. No human, regardless of their vision could have seen the lights. Factually, the lights were not an issue at all. Period. Furthermore, for the copilot to be where he was means despite being color blind, he had enough color vision for color blindness to never be an issue (medical fact). As a result of the FAA citing a pilot who wasn't flying and was physically impossible for FAA to cite the reason, the FAA CHANGED THEIR REGULATIONS TO PUNISH ALL COLOR BLIND PILOTS. These pilots must now be constantly re-tested for color vision problems despite it being a medical fact one test is all that is required - ever, for the life of the pilot. Color blind pilots, who are proven safe, are now forced to be subjected to additional fees and pointless testing.

The simple fact, the FAA prevents real competition in the aviation economy. The fact is, modern, non-certified equipment is frequently far more reliable, more modern, more capable, and a fraction of the cost. This is true because competition means superior solutions rise to the top. The market actually is self regulating. Meanwhile, the FAA ensures 30-40 year old technology is the only option available unless you want to buy a new plane.

Simply put, the fact of the matter is, the FAA makes the skies more dangerous and more expensive for everyone. Until the FAA is seriously overhauled, its impossible for the trend to change.

Re:Not just the UK (1)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 3 years ago | (#35377650)

Totally agree. But when a tower is using a computer system from the 60's?.

Thats unlikely to be the case anywhere. Most of Africa for example, uses systems built in the last ten years, with fully electronic operation. No paper strips.

Re:Not just the UK (1)

Wrath0fb0b (302444) | more than 3 years ago | (#35371846)

You would think this is one of those places where the technology would be constantly updated, but not so.

What? Given the mission-critical nature of the technology (and hence scrupulous validation) and the relatively slow changing requirements, I would think the technology would almost never change except for a brief period of time during implementation where they iron out the kinks.

Unless the old system is actually failing (and given the superlative safety delivered by the aviation industry in the past few decades, I doubt it) there is everything to lose and little to gain from getting on the upgrade treadmill. Unless you are a contractor providing new tech and troubleshooting, in which case it's a goldmine.

Save the latest technology for cell phones and tablets, I'd prefer my aviation run on something with a few-decade track record.

Re:Not just the UK (1)

Em Adespoton (792954) | more than 3 years ago | (#35372958)

From the article, it appears that the new system allows them to run the same airspace with fewer employees, cutting operational costs.

So for the owners, there is much go gain from implementing the new system, assuming it works as well as the old one. Even with a few contractors, it's probably cheaper.

Re:Not just the UK (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35373842)

So you would prefer to not be able to scale up airports to any larger than they currently are? Your entire post is based on the idea that whatever the number of flights being handled at an airport that only that many need to be handled forever. You know as well as I do that some systems don't scale past a small number. Something like O(n^2). So while I completely understand that some pieces of tech should stay relatively slow there are times when they should be improved and I would guess that this is one of them.

Re:Not just the UK (1)

slinches (1540051) | more than 3 years ago | (#35372010)

There's a reason ATCs use very outdated tech ... It Works. These systems have already been certified by the appropriate regulatory agencies and there is a lot of experience built up using them over the years. There is plenty of room for improvement (using GPS for example), but extensive testing and oversight is needed to ensure that any new system that is put in place will actually improve cost or efficiency without adversely impacting safety.

Re:Not just the UK (3, Insightful)

ObsessiveMathsFreak (773371) | more than 3 years ago | (#35372084)

You would think this is one of those places where the technology would be constantly updated, but not so.

Maybe you want the software which prevents your plane colliding with any of three dozen others written in php on a LAMP stack with automatic updates to your latest iDink app, but I don't.

Give me a 40 year old system written in COBOL any day of the week. At least there's a chance that was written by a Real Programmer(in TECO naturally).

Re:Not just the UK (1)

BJ_Covert_Action (1499847) | more than 3 years ago | (#35373554)

You would think this is one of those places where the technology would be constantly updated, but not so.

For mission critical systems the word, "update," translates to, "potential for new, unexpected bugs to crop up." If a system exists wherein which all of the bugs, problems, and gotchas have been documented, worked around, and patched then changing it is simply a means of opening the system up to new failure modes. You don't update mission critical systems unless there is a verifiable, valuable thing to be gained from the update. Otherwise you are just increasing risk and getting nothing in return.

You can tape my punchtape when you pry it... (2)

davolfman (1245316) | more than 3 years ago | (#35371426)

Am I the only who seems to notice that the old system apparently ran off ticker tape somehow? WTF! How do you even make that work? If these people have been working on such a system that long no wonder they have trouble training them to a new system, it must all be reflex by now like driving a stick shift.

stick what? (1)

xMrFishx (1956084) | more than 3 years ago | (#35371452)

I dunno, most cars in England have a manual gearbox and are the preferred way to drive over here...

Re:stick what? (1)

140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) | more than 3 years ago | (#35371500)

I dunno, most cars in England have a manual gearbox and are the preferred way to drive over here...

If petrol (Brit for gasoline) costs as much here as it does there, more people would use the stick shift (Am for gear lever) and manual transmission (Am for gearbox).

Re:stick what? (1)

beelsebob (529313) | more than 3 years ago | (#35371672)

stick shift (Am for gear lever)

No – automatics have gear levers too, they just don't get moved as often.

manual transmission (Am for gearbox).

No – automatics have gearboxes too, they just aren't manually controlled.

The brit phrase you're looking for is simply "a manual" (or "an automatic").

Re:stick what? (1)

Gordonjcp (186804) | more than 3 years ago | (#35372242)

I find I move the gearlever in my automatic car about as often as I move it in the manual one. If I didn't, I'd likely crash at the first corner as I tried to go round it in top.

Re:stick what? (1)

beelsebob (529313) | more than 3 years ago | (#35372696)

Pardon? Automatic cars don't require you to take them out of top, you stick them in drive and they chose the gear. Perhaps you're thinking of a semi-automatic (a car with a manual gear leaver, but no (driver controlled) clutch).

Re:stick what? (1)

Gordonjcp (186804) | more than 3 years ago | (#35374676)

They kind of *do* require you to take them out of top, because they can't magically sense things like corners coming up. Or, do you prefer wobbling unsteadily round corners with your foot on the brake?

Re:stick what? (1)

Hognoxious (631665) | more than 3 years ago | (#35376972)

You must have a special type of automatic box. The technical term for it is "broken".

Re:stick what? (1)

Gordonjcp (186804) | more than 3 years ago | (#35377308)

So you're saying that your car's automatic gearbox can sense when you're coming up to a corner, and change down for you? How does it do that?

Re:stick what? (1)

beelsebob (529313) | more than 3 years ago | (#35377488)

When the rotation speed of the engine drops below a certain rate, it automatically changes down a gear. It can't predict when it's going to happen and engine break, which makes them less efficient than manuals, but the norm for driving an automatic is to simply put it in drive, and get on with it – drive is normally the only forward gear.

Re:stick what? (1)

Gordonjcp (186804) | more than 3 years ago | (#35378140)

Right, but that's not the same thing. It's dangerous to go into a corner under braking - particularly in rear wheel drive cars - but that's what you'd have to do if you didn't make the gearbox change down.

TL;DR - if you just put the car in drive and let the auto box have its own way you will always be in the wrong gear on bends, and have a lurching wobbly uncomfortable drive - and not to mention dangerous.

Re:stick what? (1)

0123456 (636235) | more than 3 years ago | (#35371754)

Automatics are often as or more economical than manuals these days.

Re:stick what? (1)

Ironhandx (1762146) | more than 3 years ago | (#35372008)

If driven the same way then yes, manuals however have all sorts of things that can be done by the driver to reduce fuel consumption.

Skipping 4th gear while on a flat or slightly downward slope comes to mind.

Re:stick what? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35372154)

Depends if it has the same number of gears as a manual, which is especially important for long journeys when you are cruising at speed. (My car has a 6 speed manual gear box).

They can be better in stop/start traffic (for your left foot as well as fuel usage :) and the new sequential autos can give better fuel economy.

The biggest reason now may be the cost; autos tend to cost more than manuals, plus if you learn to drive an auto you can't drive anything else, and most driving schools teach in manual.

ta.

Re:stick what? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35377720)

I assume you mean 'costs as little' instead of 'costs as much'?

We Brits are paying some of the highest fuel prices in the world - the station down the road from me just hit £1.30/liter for petrol and £1.34/liter for diesel.

Re:You can tape my punchtape when you pry it... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35371550)

If this is like some systems in the US, these strips pertain to Aircraft that are currently under a Controller's jurisdiction, as the Aircraft moves out of his area of interest and enters an area under the responsibility of a different Air Traffic Controller, entries are made in the system to internally "handoff" the aircraft to the new display position.
At this point in time, typically, the strips are also physically handed off to the new controller.

Re: paper strips, not ticker tape/cards (1)

ekrock (736908) | more than 3 years ago | (#35371828)

They're not talking about "ticker tape" or punchcards. I'm no expert on ATC technology, but I recall reading an article about a fiasco in which the US FAA hired IBM (IIRC) to try to create a digital ATC system, the effort failed, and they killed the entire project after spending $1B. Apparently, the old analog method involved having a physical piece of paper for each flight that was placed on a physical representation of the flight path, and somehow the paper helped them avoid collisions.

Re:You can tape my punchtape when you pry it... (3, Informative)

natehoy (1608657) | more than 3 years ago | (#35371952)

Not ticker tape. A Flight Progress strip http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flight_progress_strip [wikipedia.org]

"Old-school" controlling uses strips of paper. When a flight comes under your control, you grab a strip of paper and write the flight number on it. You stick it up on a board in front of you. When a flight gets near leaving your zone of control, you tell them to contact the next controller, and you physically hand the strip of paper to that controller or have a flunky run it down for you. Then when the pilot calls that controller, the controller is expecting the call (and if the pilot never calls the controller, the controller knows the pilot has screwed up his frequencies or made an error).

This is called "handing off" a flight, and handing the strip of paper over is the origination of that term.

And the problem here is not training the controllers to use the system. The problem is that the fancy new system had a tendency to slow down or fail, meaning the controllers needed to fall back on the strips of paper.

Re:You can tape my punchtape when you pry it... (1)

dogsbreath (730413) | more than 3 years ago | (#35373936)

Thanks for posting. Ticker tape indeed!

Obviously there are issues and limitations with the strips but they work well, have a high capacity, and provide excellent informational view of flights. They don't crash, slow down or freeze. And the flight strip does not disappear en route to another controller. And they work in all sorts of complex situations. It may be hard for some folk to comprehend that a manual paper system sets a high bar for a replacement digital system.

I am surprised at the comment from the vendor in TFA to the effect that nothing new has happened in control since the introduction of radar. Seems to me that computer driven displays, flight management, and information displays were introduced in the 1970's.

Re:You can tape my punchtape when you pry it... (1)

SilentSheep (705509) | more than 3 years ago | (#35377636)

They don't write the fliight number on a piece of paper. When a flight is due to enter a controllers sector, a strip will be printed and given to the controller. This strip will have all the details for the flight including callsign/route/destination etc... When a controller gives instructions to that flight, he writes on the piece of paper so he can keep track of what instructions have been given to it.

They are called 'Flightstrips' (1)

Sonny_Jimbod (836857) | more than 3 years ago | (#35372310)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flight_progress_strip [wikipedia.org] I used to supply equipment to ATC environments, and it's comforting to know that even though they have millions of $$$'s to play with, the system integrators still understand the need for redundant systems. Every place I worked in used flightstrips alongside their computerised systems and I'm suprised that there are not using them here.

Re:You can tape my punchtape when you pry it... (1)

digitig (1056110) | more than 3 years ago | (#35372646)

It's not ticker-tape. The flight details printed onto lightweight card strips that slot into custom-made holders which slot into a custom-made frame in the controller's desk. The controllers can move them around, annotate them, and hand them to the next controller when required. They've been replaced with electronic flight strips in much of Europe. As the article says, there are a lot of backups to cover the situation in the event of failures. The most likely effect of a failure is flow restrictions, which to the passengers means delays, which are a pain in the butt but are the safe failure mode. There will be risks associated with failure -- there always are. CAP670 [caa.co.uk] says what has to be done to show the risks are adequately managed; section SW01 of that document is likely the bit that /. readers will be interested in.

Re:You can tape my punchtape when you pry it... (1)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 3 years ago | (#35377692)

The paper strips being referred to are basically strips of thin card, about 25 by 200 mm. They are pre-printed with lines which deliminate fields. Each strip represents a Flight (or Aircraft, or Track). Fields on the strip include:

  1. Aircraft ID
  2. Registration
  3. Airport of departure
  4. Destination
  5. Route (a list of waypoints)
  6. Levels for each waypoint
  7. SSR code (transponder setting, it will come up on the radar)
  8. Cleared flight level
  9. Arrival time

...lots of other fields are possible. These days that data will be primarily stored by software in a Flight Data Record (FDR). The ICAO defines protocols for exchanging FDRs between air traffic control centres so London can send an FDR to Paris before the aircraft even departs London.

With the ATC centre the strips were passed around as the control of aircraft was handed off between controllers. These days it is more likely the controller will hit a handoff key and select the destination sector. The strip will be software displayed on the same screen as the Track which represents the aircraft.

US Navy also tried digital.... (1)

cstanley8899 (1998614) | more than 3 years ago | (#35371456)

Some US naval tactical systems also reverted from digital because it was too slow.

Sounds like a job to Node.js! (1)

unil_1005 (1790334) | more than 3 years ago | (#35371900)

http://nodejs.org/ [nodejs.org]

Re:Sounds like a job to Node.js! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35372130)

I really hope that's a joke...

Re:Sounds like a job to Node.js! (1)

trollertron3000 (1940942) | more than 3 years ago | (#35372186)

If it is, it's a good one.

Node.js + Hadoop + Social networking = instant silicon valley money pit win these days. They don't even care what you make, just make sure you use node.js.

Re:Sounds like a job to Node.js! (1)

badkarmadayaccount (1346167) | more than 3 years ago | (#35378144)

What's wrong with Node and Hadoop? They seem to have reasonable use cases. Social networking is a great money maker if you are handy with data mining, though it does seem a fad, somewhat.

In other news (1)

Hognoxious (631665) | more than 3 years ago | (#35372000)

In other news, UK locksmiths say safe not an air traffic control system.

US not so safe either... (1)

tekrat (242117) | more than 3 years ago | (#35372426)

As you're likely to be sexually assaulted by a TSA agent.
Or be exposed to child porn naked body scanners.

Re:US not so safe either... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35373040)

Don't worry. The scanners are going to be instituted "covertly" so you will not even know you are getting X-rayed while walking down the street.

      http://yro.slashdot.org/story/11/03/03/1943258/DHS-Eyes-Covert-Body-Scans

EFD does what exactly? (2)

destroyer661 (847607) | more than 3 years ago | (#35372524)

Can anyone comment on what exactly this system is doing? From reading TFA and googlin' around it seems like it needs to aggregate all(?) incoming/outgoing aircraft data into a readable strip that humans can then do something with? Please correct me if I'm wrong.

Re:EFD does what exactly? (1)

SilentSheep (705509) | more than 3 years ago | (#35377648)

You're wrong. Currently when a flight enters an Air Traffic Controllers sector, a piece of paper is printed out with details of that flight on it, these are called 'Flight Progress Strips'. Controllers use these strips to keep track of where a flight is supposed to be going and what instructions have been given to it. Basically EFD aims to replace these paper strips with an electronic version.

Re:EFD does what exactly? (1)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 3 years ago | (#35377722)

The system they are describing takes all the data for the air traffic control system and aggregates into a meaningful system. Inputs to the system are sensor data (eg radar), flight data (aircraft ABC is intended to take off from X and land at Y between these times), and input from air traffic controllers who use an HMI (Human Machine Interface) of some kind). As a former HMI developer I know that the HMI gets the blame for all faults seen on the HMI, which is hardly fair.

Outputs are instructions from the controller to aircraft directing them to safe volumes of airspace, as well as streams of information to a few external agencies, eg, the displays of flight status in airports, and external ATC systems which need to know what aircraft are flying their way.

The strips being referred to are an old way of keeping track of aircraft. Modern systems use back end data stores for that and sometimes display electronic strips on the HMI. If the electronic system goes belly up then the controllers try to go back to paper strips and hilarity ensues. It would be a bit like telling a bank to get by without computers for a day. Easier to shut the place down for the duration.

Safety is Not Binary (2)

eepok (545733) | more than 3 years ago | (#35373300)

The air traffic control system is neither "safe" nor "not safe". It's impossible to be completely safe and the current system is definitely better than a worse system.

What they should say is, "... is not safe enough for X." where X can equal "the amount of money we put into it", "modern standards", or "the pilots and passengers".

Re:Safety is Not Binary (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35377548)

It's impossible to be completely safe and the current system is definitely better than a worse system.

Your argument is certainly better than a worse argument.

if they don't like it... (2)

ajdub (520241) | more than 3 years ago | (#35373990)

the people who built it failed to do their jobs correctly. if there's one thing i can't stand, it's when technology is done wrong by people who don't know what they're doing, then foistered upon others by a heavy hand of management. if the system doesn't make the controllers happy, it's wrong. they're not whiney users... the system sucks.

You think that's scary? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35377552)

Wait until they roll it out at Swanwick. The project's already running late. Although, in all fairness, name me one large IT project that isn't...

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