Upgrading Australia’s Air Traffic Management Technology

30 August 2010 (Last Updated August 30th, 2010 18:30)

Australia has recently put the finishing touches on a world-class air traffic management system. Alex Hawkes looks at how continuous software enhancements and a close partnership with technology guru Thales has engineered one of the world's most modern air traffic management systems.

Upgrading Australia’s Air Traffic Management Technology

In March 2000, Australia unveiled its advanced air traffic system (TAAATS) – a revolutionary hardware and software system designed to help manage the country's rapidly growing number of domestic and international flights. The move was the largest aviation infrastructure project in the country's history and involved the creation of two of the world's most advanced air traffic control centres – one in Melbourne and another in Brisbane.

TAAATS is overseen by the government-owned air traffic control company, Air Services Australia, which is responsible for managing the 63 million passengers that fly onboard more than four million of the country's domestic and international flights every year. The company employs over 3,000 members of staff, including 900 air traffic controllers deployed at its two main control centres and 26 other control towers nationwide.

Air Services Australia has been working closely with global technology provider Thales since the system's inception in order to deliver continuous software upgrades and system enhancements. The most recent of these occurred in December 2009 when Air Services Australia and Thales successfully delivered TAAATS V12 – a major software upgrade designed to support the introduction of new radar surveillance tracking, QNH processing, safety-net monitoring and radar bypass services.

Peter Curran, manager of strategic operational initiatives within Air Services Australia's air traffic control group, says he believes the latest upgrade will offer domestic air traffic controllers greater surveillance of Australian skies.

"TAAATS is overseen by the government-owned air traffic control company, Air Services Australia."

"TAAATS version 12 has provided Air Services Australia with a major surveillance capability upgrade that will allow us to move towards a more modern surveillance tracking system and more integrated alerting," he says

"We have commissioned a significant number of ADS-B sites which now give us complete ADS-B surveillance above 30,000ft (FL300) over continental Australia, as well as the first multilateration system (MLAT) to give us complete surveillance over Tasmania."

"Since January 2010 we have also deployed additional safety enhancements to the controller pilot datalink communication interface (CPDLC) and track label highlight features."

The latest move is specifically focused on updating surveillance processing in a bid to align the system with any developments in international standards. Taking several years to complete, the upgrade required a large multinational team of Thales engineers to help develop and modify more than 1.3 million lines of code. The team eventually implemented a total of 51 enhancements to the existing operational TAAATS environment, which was rolled out across multiple sites in Australia.

"We have managed to develop a very close relationship with Thales. The company has even maintained a presence in Australia specifically to support our programme," Curran says.

"Thales has also continued to develop its Eurocat product – a computerised air traffic control and management solution currently being trialled in more than 100 flight information regions worldwide – in conjunction with us and other customers in the region."

Increasing surveillance

Before the introduction of TAAATS in 2000, Australian air space was divided into six flight information regions. In order to prepare for the new system's arrival, Air Services Australia trimmed this figure down to just two regions, managed from Melbourne and Brisbane.

Using the new system, Air Services Australia was, for the first time, able to display all controlled and detected aircraft on a plan view display. Likewise, all flight information began to be displayed on track labels and electronic flight strips while new features were also introduced to Australia's air traffic control network such as conflict alerting, conformance monitoring, and CFIT protection in terminal areas, integrated radar and satellite surveillance and datalink communications. TAAATS also marked Australia's transition to a paperless air traffic control environment.

"Before TAAATS was introduced, there were several years of human machine interface (HMI) development and system design and testing for the software and hardware components. Development of controller training and procedures development took place over the three years in the lead up to commissioning and has continued throughout the life of the product," Curran says. "We also carried out extensive controller training and simulation for the transition to TAAATS."

Be prepared

Ten years on and Air Services Australia has continued with its thorough approach to preparation and training. The company has conducted around 77 software upgrades to the operational system since its inception – ranging from implementing minor configuration changes to facilitating software and hardware enhancements. The company has also had to act quickly to keep the system up to speed with the fast growth of the Australian aviation sector – namely by adding air traffic flow management strategies as airports increase in demand and capacity or monitoring current and forecast weather patterns using Flex tracks (a sophisticated ground and cockpit technology that tracks live weather in order to highlight tailwinds and favourable weather conditions).

"TAAATS V12 has provided
Air Services Australia with
a major surveillance capability upgrade."

"Through TAAATS we have been able to deliver a highly reliable and safe air traffic service that takes advantage of all the leading existing technologies available both on the ground and in the air," Curron says. "Many other regional air navigation service providers (ANSPs) have visited our facilities and had briefings on our systems. We have provided training – operational and technical – as well as given systems procurement and management advice to several ANSPs in the region." The company confirms that it intends to continue its policy of routinely upgrading the system software in the future. But for the time being, Curron is content with the advantages gained from the introduction of TAAATS V12.

"Since the last upgrade, we have been able to gather a more accurate picture of where the aircraft are whilst the conflict detection tools has allowed us closer (higher density of traffic) and yet safer separation of aircraft. Furthermore, we have been able to reduce lateral separation standards for ADS-B-equipped aircraft from the large procedural standards (20nm and greater) to more efficient surveillance standards (5nm)," Curron says.

"The upgrade has also given us the possibility of accepting different format radar data. This has paved the way for our terminal area radar replacement programme, which involves deploying new low energy radars that will benefit the environment."