Can Delivering Air Traffic Management Capabilities Become as Easy as ABCD?

April 2021
Topics: Aviation Safety, Aviation Industry, Aviation Administration, Air Traffic Management, Software Design, Software Engineering
MITRE has prototyped a framework to deliver new air traffic management applications in a fraction of the time traditional approaches take. MITRE’s approach demonstrates how the FAA can adapt quickly to an evolving aviation environment.
air traffic control tower interior

New types of vehicles are entering the National Airspace System at a rapid pace. COVID-19 has created an uncertain and fluctuating demand picture. And we’re entering a future where the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), other government entities, and airspace users will increasingly collaborate to manage the system.

These rapid changes call for equally rapid changes in the software that supports air traffic management (ATM). MITRE, which operates the FAA’s federally funded research and development center, is literally bringing an agile response to these challenges.

Working in collaboration with the FAA, we prototyped a framework to deliver new traffic flow management information applications in six months or less.

“That’s a significant improvement over traditional approaches to software acquisition, which can take years and cost many millions of dollars,” says Craig Wanke, chief engineer for MITRE’s National Airspace System Evolution and System Engineering Division.

Using the new framework, for example, we developed an application to improve the communication and coordination necessary to designate a flight a “pathfinder.” In that scenario, a pilot agrees to fly a departure route previously closed due to weather to see if it should be reopened for general use.

Another application gives traffic managers a better understanding of controller workload. It provides insights based on the number of arriving flights controllers are handling and the mechanisms they must use to keep them safely spaced.


Rapid Software Deployment for Air Traffic Management

The MITRE-developed framework, Application-Based Capability Development (ABCD), builds on software development best practices the commercial sector has introduced in recent years. It takes advantage of MITRE’s extensive experience helping a variety of U.S. government agencies adopt those practices. It also introduces some of our own innovations for the ATM arena.

The foundation for ABCD is the agile software development approach (sometimes called simply “Agile”). Instead of trying to deliver a vast, comprehensive software product all at once, Agile lets developers create software incrementally, in modules.

“It engages users from the beginning, releases software quickly—usually in a matter of weeks—and then refines the software based on user feedback,” Wanke explains.

Meanwhile, cloud computing is enabling commercial entities to buy only the computation power and network capacity they need at any given time, and to scale up quickly, without the hardware investment traditional approaches require.

At the same time, collections of tools called “software factories” provide developers with code-building and testing pipelines they can use to quickly determine that their product is safe, secure, and works as intended.

ABCD: A Building-Block Approach for the Future

“We’re taking full advantage of these best practices in our ABCD project,” says Kevin Long, the technical lead for the ABCD framework. “We’re also taking a ‘microservices’ approach to software design, where a system is built of separate, self-contained applications.” Because they’re not interdependent, these applications can be developed, deployed, and updated independent of one another.

“This is in stark contrast to the traditional method of creating a complex system where components are so interdependent that making modifications to one requires a web of changes to many others,” he adds.

The different applications are also designed to “talk” with each other. That way, users can select the most relevant components and combine them to create their own, specialized tools and data views.

“Users are not limited to someone else’s idea of the perfect application,” Long explains. “They’re at liberty to pull together exactly the decision aids they need to address the ATM situation at hand.” They can also configure components in the ways that best suit their needs.

“If a traffic flow manager wants to see the data on a map, they can pull up a map. If they want to see the data on a table, they can pull up a table. Or both. So, it’s a one-size-fits-all platform, but the interface itself will only display the items the user has decided they need to understand the problem space.”

The Transformation Starts Now

Although ABCD is still in the demonstration phase, it illustrates how innovative and flexible tools can be put in the hands of users within months rather than years—and at greatly reduced costs.

Lessons learned from this process will be valuable beyond ATM applications.

“Ultimately, they’ll inform the development of an FAA-wide automation evolution strategy,” Long says. As ABCD demonstrates with its use of recent technological and practice advancements, that future may not be far away.

—by Marlis McCollum


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