Paying It Forward

09212016_stars_big11_banner (3)The United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently completed deployment of the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS) at the 11 largest Terminal Radar Approach Control facilities (TRACON) across the National Airspace System (NAS).
The multi-year project is comparable to En Route Automation Modernization in terms of importance, complexity and the level of collaboration needed for success.
This year, New York was the last of the “Big 11” TRACONs to commission the latest flight-tracking system. The Big 11 also includes Chicago, Potomac, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Southern California, Northern California, Louisville, Denver and Dallas TRACONs.
Nine of the big TRACONs are among the 10 busiest air traffic facilities in the world.
Chicago, Potomac and Southern California completed the transition in 2015 and all 11 TRACONs are benefitting from the cutting-edge STARS technology. The transition project began in 2013, with Dallas being the first large TRACON to declare operational readiness in July 2014.
Under the FAA’s Terminal Automation Modernization and Replacement (TAMR) program, STARS provides new and advanced functionalities for controllers, including state-of-the-art, flat-panel LCD displays, the ability to save workstation preferences and minimum aircraft separation keys. It also offers an easier-to-maintain infrastructure for airway transportation system specialists.
STARS allows for services like Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast (ADS-B) and Data Comm to operate, which is why it’s considered a NextGen foundational technology.
“This is a huge achievement because we had to figure out how to get all these big TRACONs cut over without causing any flight delays or outages,” said TAMR programme manager Lisa Bercher. “Literally, you turn the old system off and then you come back up on the new one.”
That’s exactly what the STARS team did at each facility — without missing a beat.
The programme remained on budget and ahead of schedule, and it provides for long-term cost savings as well as enhancements to NAS safety and efficiency.
The uniform automation platform reduces infrastructure costs associated with maintaining multiple configurations, streamlines training and allows for increased functionality to support NextGen.
Upgrading each TRACON with STARS meant the FAA had to account for each facility’s unique airspace, which comprise multiple sectors with parallel and intersecting runways at the busy airports they support. The new software had to be adapted to meet those individual site requirements.
That’s where the Common Automated Radar Terminal System (CARTS) in STARS (CIS) team and Operational Support Facility (OSF) come into play.
“CIS provided the ability to perform side-by-side comparisons and fine tune the STARS adaptation,” Professional Aviation Safety Specialists’ TAMR lead Phil Nicholson said.
“Having both systems available and running in parallel significantly reduced the time and effort required to cutover to STARS.”
The CIS team worked with Raytheon and the OSF to plan and develop multiple configurations to support each facility, tailoring the software to each one’s local terrain and procedures. They then tested, documented and deployed the CIS software and hardware to the TRACONs.
“Our software engineers had to look at nuances at every site, and turn the software around very quickly to stay on schedule and keep everything running on STARS,” said Joan Somogy, FAA Terminal Second Level Engineering group manager. “One of our biggest challenges was environmental issues at Southern California.”
During the Southern California TRACON’s transition, software engineers had to make additional software changes and answer an influx of calls from controllers who spotted anomalies on the radar.
Communication is always a challenge during transitions, Bercher said. But the lessons learned from Southern California and other CARTS facility transitions have helped the FAA complete smoother subsequent deployments at Chicago and New York TRACONs, two of the world’s busiest air traffic facilities.
The TAMR team’s work is not finished. Roughly 150 small and medium TRACONs will get the new automation system by August 2019.

Studio portraits for Lisa Bercher. Photo by Louis Tinsley/DC Corporate Headshots.
Lisa Bercher ‘paying it forward’

The FAA is conducting several transitions per week to replace the outdated Automated Radar Terminal System (ARTS) IIE and IE systems at those facilities, efforts that are going smoother thanks to lessons learned from the Big 11 projects.
“That’s what we call paying it forward,” Bercher said. “It’s about facilities taking what they learned and helping other facilities be successful.”
 
FAA employees involved in the STARS deployment to the Big 11 TRACONS.