Ron Reisman of NASA Ames Research Center spoke on managing air traffic control systems; his talk focused on the tools used to manage air traffic. However, to understand the software you need to first need to understand parts of the air traffic control system.
Air traffic control is organized into four domains: Surface, which runs out of the airport control tower, controls the aircraft on the ground, such as taxi and takeoff; Terminal Area, which covers aircraft at 11,000 feet and below, handled by the Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facilities; En Route, which covers between 11,000 and 40,000 feet, including climb, descent, and at-altitude flight, run out of the 20 Air Route Traffic Control Centers (ARTCC, pronounced "artsy"); and Traffic Flow Management, which is the strategic arm. Each area has sectors for low, high, and very-high flight. Each sector has a controller team, including one person on the microphone, and handles between 12 and 16 aircraft at a time. Since the number of sectors and areas are limited and fixed, there's limited capacity of the system. The events of September 11th 2001 gave us a respite in terms of system usage, but based on path growth patterns the air traffic system will be oversubscribed within 2 to 3 years. How do we handle this oversubscription?
Air Traffic Managment (ATM) Decision Support Tools (DST) use physics, aeronautics, heuristics (expert systems), fuzzy logic, and neural nets to help the (human) aircraft controllers route aircraft around. The rest of the talk focused on capacity issues, but the DST also handle safety and security issues. The software follows open standards (ISO, POSIX, and ANSI). The team at NASA Ames made Center-TRACON Automation System (CTAS), which is software for each of the ARTCCs, portable from Solaris to HP-UX and Linux as well. Unlike just about every other major software project, this one really is standard and portable; his co-presenter, Rob Savoye, has experience in maintaining gcc on multiple platforms and is the project lead on the portability and standards issues for the code. CTAS is interesting in that it allows the ARTCCs to upgrade and enhance individual aspects or parts of the system; it isn't a monolithic all-or-nothing like the old ATM systems.
Some of the future areas of research include a head-mounted augmented reality device for the Tower operators, to improve their situational awareness by automating human factors; and new digital global positioning system (DGPS) technologies which are accurate within inches instead of feet.
Questions included using advanced avionics (for example, to get rid of ground control), cooperation between the US and Europe for software development (we're working together on software development, but the various European countries' controllers don't talk well to each other), and privatization.