Sitting Pretty

Frequentis has taken on the design leadership of the integrated controller working position within SESAR. Theodor Zeh and Christoph Lupprich explain the iCWP® philosophy
Today’s air traffic management (ATM) system is at its limit. Without a fundamental change further growth will be impossible in large parts of the world. That’s a well-known fact and the reason why programmes like SESAR and NextGen have been introduced as a solution.
What we need is a higher level of productivity throughout the overall system. We need therefore to learn from mass production techniques and understand this ‘production line’ philosophy in value-adding steps. Each one different from the other one. And each one the result of an optimised human/machine symbiotic relationship.
The machine element within this symbiosis is what we call the integrated Controller Working Position or iCWP. And the growth scenario just described demonstrates that it is insufficient so see the machine element just as a front end of any ATM building block. It is an independent part of the system combining all necessary information to support the human symbiont in making the most effective decisions. Not just right or wrong but the best decision for the safety and productivity of the overall system.
This demands flexible and adaptable iCWP architecture, enabling different tools for different roles. Human abilities remain the same; it is the iCWP that has to bridge the permanently changing gap to achieve an optimised human/machine symbiosis for each role.
Midst of change
The current situation in the air traffic control domain is comparable to the pre-smartphone world. There are a handful of market-dominant players, each driving their own technical solution, delivering very specialised hardware and software.
With the introduction of the iPhone by Apple in 2007 together with all its subsequent software updates, so-called apps – small applications produced by third party vendors integrated into the existing mobile phone software made their first appearance. The business model of the traditional mobile phone manufacturer started to crumble.
This led to a much broader market for software manufacturers and, even more importantly, to a liberated market of software products, ranging from small everyday tools to highly specialised and sophisticated applications that met the specific needs of a user community.

Forecasts indicate a sustained increase of air traffic over the next few years, making it clear that this rise cannot be handled with the today’s installed systems.

Applying this fundamental approach to the world of ATC, the integrated Controller Working Position needs to go the way of the smartphone, liberating the very controlled market of ATC systems by providing a handful of base systems, upon which the base of the ATC and ATM world of the future will be built.
At the same time, it will enable a much broader range of so-called apps, small, very neatly integrated applications, fulfilling very broad or even very specific tasks, while still keeping the safety criteria as high as they are currently.
But why is such a step necessary? Forecasts by Eurocontrol indicate a sustained increase of air traffic over the next few years, making it clear that this rise cannot be handled with the today’s installed systems.
Those forecasts have led to the establishment of projects like SESAR, which seeks to prepare Europe’s ANSPs and the ATC industry for that increased traffic. Quite clearly, this will make ATC systems more complex, more tightly coupled and more demanding for the industry to implement. They will equally be more demanding for ATC users within the ANSPs that will have to introduce, operate and maintain them.
The mobile phone industry was forced through just such a transition which led to it building upon successful paths and ignoring pointless dead-ends.
Green shoots can similarly be seen in initiatives like ATM in the cloud, which is heavily based on a new system wide information management or SWIM concept, the establishment of FABs within Europe and the European Aeronautical Database (EAD), a system which has been successfully operated for quite some time, delivering and exchanging data all across Europe.
What’s new?
So, what is the core idea behind iCWP? The iCWP shall introduce a shift from a machine-focused way of thinking through a transition to a human-machine symbioses, placing the human, the operator, at the heart of operations. This will strengthen his role as the key agent guaranteeing safety and performance while at the same time establishing the machine as his principle aid in achieving those goals.
This symbioses will manifest itself chiefly in the area of user interaction. We will see a shift away from a pure ‘receiving’ approach of interaction methods like, for example, clicking the mouse over a button or menu, to a more intentional/interpretational approach. This means that the machine will enhance the interpretation with additional data, sensing the environment in which the user is currently operating or even merging multiple interaction methods and devices to yield a combined view of the situation.
Another likely aspect within this transition is the emergence of so-called decision support tools hailing from the artificial intelligence realm of computer sciences. Such algorithms, methods and tools will help the controller by taking a best guess upon the subsequent  information he wants to see or the next action he wants to apply. It’s not rocket science. Every search engine in the web does it. And while we can moan about Google we would never be quite as productive using the internet without it.
Middleware role
Finding its analogy in the smartphone world, the concept of the iCWP will equally anchor itself through a set of different architectural baseline elements and best practices. Among them is a common way of inter-application communication, enabling a rapid exchange of data, simplistically called ‘middleware’.
Such concepts are already implemented in large systems at banks and stock exchanges, fulfilling the most acute demands with regards to safety and security, so highly appropriate to the demands of the ATM world. Through this middleware, data will be exchanged, for example surveillance data, or FDP data, weather, voice, etc.
For this to be a successful model an open interface for the middleware must be established and, subsequently, one or more open protocols for the exchange of information and data. A handful of such protocols already exist today, among others the ED133 standard for Flight Objects.
Another crucial factor for a truly integrated solution is the demand for a unified interaction concept, which involves not only the actual look of the application, like colours, icons, layout and typography, but also the way in which an operator or a user in more general terms, will operate the machine.
Experience tells us that this will quite likely be the hardest part. Some truly different interaction concepts that already exist are coming under heavy pressure from multi-touch devices with their radically new interaction approach.
The combination of the look and feel will manifest itself in some sort of toolbox, a set of base components which will cover most user scenarios for software with user interface engineers able to deliver a truly unified solution (or apps) to the ANSPs.
The concept of so-called apps in the smartphone market is a huge success, both to the developers of such apps, but more important, to their users. There is an app for everything: apps for fitness and sports, productivity apps, news readers, video players, scientific applications, apps for airport arrival and departure tables, even apps which show the real time air traffic above our heads.
Apps are easy to make because you can build upon a given set of standards, such as a user interface and user interaction toolbox, making sure that the look and feel is the same across all applications.
With a rigorous review process, the maintainers of those app stores can set baseline requirements with regards to performance, stability and consensus. If these requirements are insufficient, there remains the possibility of hosting the app store environment and applying one’s own app policies. The app distribution process could therefore be controlled entirely.
Applying this concept to the ATC and ATM world could mean that we could finally escape the trap of vendor lock-in and enable our systems to evolve in a technological future as envisioned by SESAR. Of course, our challenging environment demands the highest levels of safety and also security, but with new processes and tools in the making during SESAR, this step seems quite achievable and desirable.
Where are we today?
Like the smartphone, the ATM domain is similarly not moving homogenously with different vendors pursuing different strategies. That said, practically all treat the Controller Working Position as the important building block which it should be and have modular concepts in mind. And more or less all of those will allow third party apps to operate within those CWPs. And just like the smartphone, this could lead to a world of competing platforms, ideally allowing third party apps to operate on all of them.
The real change for the better though will only happen once there is an open ‘published’ platform provided by a third party, not a back-end supplier. That’s the way to ensure also small entities and research organisations can come up with own apps, boosting innovation through competition.