With MITRE's Help, Republic of China Overhauls Air Traffic Management System

December 2011
Topics: Air Traffic Management, Airports
When the Republic of China needed to upgrade its national air traffic management system, it called on MITRE to help manage the transition.

A decade ago, with passenger and cargo traffic on the rise, aviation authorities in the Republic of China determined it was time to upgrade the country's aging air traffic management (ATM) system. But to avoid disruption to flight schedules and ensure safety, they also knew they needed to execute upgrades while the old system was still operational.

The Taiwan Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) Air Navigation and Weather Service (ANWS) called on systems engineering experts from across the globe, including MITRE, to help manage the transition. When the program began eight years ago, MITRE systems engineers developed master plans to modernize the ATM system and related communications, navigation, and surveillance systems. MITRE engineers assisted the CAA in managing procurement, cost-benefit analyses, feasibility studies, and operational deployment of new radar systems; modern surveillance systems including the Global Positioning System-reliant Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) system; airport surface detection equipment; and multilateration systems (which use multiple ground stations to calculate aircraft position). The MITRE team was also involved in the deployment of other critical systems, including flight-plan management systems, airport flight-information display systems, and digital voice-communication switch systems for use by air traffic controllers.

The system's official inauguration on October 5 brought about an important milestone: Taiwan's air traffic is now managed for the first time using digital systems.

"With this upgrade, the Republic of China is one of the most advanced countries in the Asia-Pacific Region in terms of air traffic management capability," says Bob Humbertson, Director of Asia-Pacific operations for MITRE's Center for Advanced Aviation System Development. "They have modernized the entire system."

An Overall Overhaul

MITRE served as the program's primary consultant for providing internal site surveys, operational concepts, and the entire acquisition process, including the preparation of the proposal documents. As the work moved forward, MITRE also provided vendor oversight, system design, and development and execution of test and certification plans for the new equipment.

"At the height of the project, MITRE had 18 people on site," Humbertson recalls. "Any time you're revamping a country's entire air traffic management system, the work is just incredibly complex. Fortunately, besides our technical skills, we brought our extensive experience with FAA to the table." MITRE frequently provides guidance to overseas aviation authorities, with the cooperation and approval of the FAA.

"Taiwan was unique in that not only were they swapping out their older automation equipment with such systems as ADS-B and newer air traffic flow management systems, but they also consolidated their controllers into new facilities at the same time."

By moving air traffic controllers from six facilities distributed across the country into two larger locations, Taiwan officials hope to improve operating efficiencies. They also rolled out new air traffic management, meteorological, and surveillance capabilities in 11 towers distributed across the country's airports. Other new tools and capabilities included electronic flight strips, modernized dual displays and consoles, and improved arrival management, traffic flow management, and flight simulator systems.

Touch screens and new digital displays give the air traffic controllers access to improved communications and surveillance tools, Humbertson adds. "Now they have not only traditional radar but also ADS-B and other advanced systems."

Keeping the System Safe Throughout

Before the upgrade, Taiwan controllers worked on manual equipment that was 12 to 15 years old—a lifetime in terms of ATM equipment. "That's the typical lifespan for air traffic control systems around the world," Humbertson says. "At 10 years, you start planning for upgrades."

MITRE and the contractors involved in the work had to plan carefully to execute the "cutover" from the old system to the new one. "You have to do more with less for a while," he explains. The ANWS staff monitored the entire system and shuffled tasks among themselves as elements went offline. "Things never work as you expect them to work at first, and since you're dealing with computers, you always have down time. But the bottom line is the system must never become unsafe."

"The transition was especially complex because as the system upgrades moved forward, Taiwan authorities further redesigned air traffic sectors to increase efficiencies," recalls Scott Jacobs, a MITRE software systems engineer who served as site leader and program manager on the project. "This mix of overlapping transitions brought with it a variety of risks that Taiwan successfully mitigated."

A Smooth Transition

Ensuring adequate staffing of air traffic control centers became a priority for Taiwan during this period, Jacobs says. For one thing, air traffic control staff saw their workloads increase even as they were learning new skills. "Each transition included phases in which some staff had to perform their normal duties as well as train to use the new systems, in some cases at new physical locations and with redesigned airspace." Further complicating matters was the need for an overlap period as new systems came online while old systems remained operational, a process known as "mimicking and mirroring."

MITRE systems engineers on site, along with several partners from for-profit companies and universities, helped the Taiwan aviation authorities keep everything running smoothly and safely during these transitions. MITRE's partners on this program included the Airways Corporation of New Zealand, Industrial Technology Research Institute (a Taiwan-based research and development organization), and Taiwan's National Cheng Kung University.

To Celia Fu Fremberg, a MITRE systems engineer who serves as program director of the Taiwan ATM modernization program, the work was a success in part because MITRE had been down this road before with the same sponsor. (See "MITRE's History with Taiwan Civil Aviation," above.)

"Given our previous experience in Taiwan and our role running the FAA's R&D center, we were able to use what we learned to help them advance the system to the point where it can handle evolving air traffic control procedures," she says. "And with this new upgrade, we believe we've helped them achieve that."

——by Maria S. Lee


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