Thursday, October 06, 2011

Insanely Great ATC



Like the rest of the planet, I’ve been listening to and reading a lot of stories about the passing of Steve Jobs. I try not to be obnoxious about it but I’ve been using Apple products since my kids started grammar school. I haven’t heard that thought today -- one of Apple’s biggest markets used to be schools, back in the day.

We bought one for the kids when they started using them in school. As soon as I tried one I junked my PC and we never looked back. I’m typing this on a MacBook with the iPod hooked up and charging. It’s sitting next to the iPad while the Airport sits next to the old eMac upstairs. When PC users talk to me about virus programs, updating video cards and what kind of processor they have...I just look at them. It’s like they’re talking in another language. I never think about those things. Ever. I want to type a blog post, share a picture, watch a video --- not build a computer.


(Folks at ZTL will remember this machine.)

That thought led me to thinking about ATC. Do you ever wonder about the equipment you use? Who designed it? I know from experience that controllers are always brought in on the tail end of the process. After the engineers and designers and software writers and bean counters and managers and a whole host of people get their say...somebody remembers that controllers actually work the airplanes and they finally show it to us. And you really wonder what they were thinking. Sometimes you wonder if they were thinking at all.

So, for today, I urge you to Think Different.



Forget the hardware. Forget the limitations. Dream of an insanely great workstation. Dream of what will allow you to run an insanely great ATC system. ATC is all about time. Dream of an insanely great clock. One that can be a stopwatch, a timer, a countdown clock. You could even dream of having one of each.

Don’t be embarrassed. I’m not sure if I ever said it, but I actually wrote Steve Jobs one time to try and interest him in designing an ATC interface. He probably only got a hundred or so requests like that every day. So what? Take your idea, write it down and share it with someone. Email the guys up at Lincoln Labs if you want. They’re just people. So what if they’re “smarter” than you. I bet they can’t do what you do -- work airplanes.

I always wanted data blocks to flicker whenever a transmission came from that aircraft. That would solve the problem of pilots not using their callsigns -- amongst other things. How about a “sticky note” for data? You can’t do it right now (whatever “it” might be) but you’ll look at it again in a few minutes. In three minutes the “sticky note” pops back up on the datablock. A touchscreen sounds cool but as I’m finding out with the iPad, you can have a lot of unintended entries. (Trust me, the advertisers have already figured it out.) But don’t let that stop you. Dare to dream.

(Hey! I just moved my spell-checking, pop-up box without even thinking about how to do it or what makes it happen. Imagine being able to do that on the machine you work with 8 hours a day.)

All this is just small stuff. I’m not a visionary. I’m not a dreamer. But some of you might be. Some of you are. Take the time to learn your trade. Then take the time to dream. If two guys in a garage can change the world, you can change air traffic control.

Don Brown
October 6, 2011

4 comments:

Comrade Misfit said...

Virus writers are like Willie Sutton: They attack where they can do the most damage. Macs are a niche product. Why bother writing a virus when there is an order of magnitude (or greater) PCs out there?

elpelso said...

If only... Loved your post, Don ! Yes, we can dream...

Air Traffic Mike said...

Amen.

Jason Lindquist said...

Dream of an insanely great workstation. Dream of what will allow you to run an insanely great ATC system.

Bingo.

I always wanted data blocks to flicker whenever a transmission came from that aircraft. That would solve the problem of pilots not using their callsigns -- amongst other things.

Upgrade the radios and let them talk to the consoles, and we could do that. Over two decades ago, Motorola started selling public service (police/fire/medical) radios that squirt a data block at the start or end of a transmission. It's still analog voice, but if you listen to the tape, or on a scanner that doesn't mute the data block from the speaker like the Moto radios do, you hear a brief chirp. It's just a programmed ID number, so the dispatch computer can identify the officer or truck belonging to that radio. There's no reason that block couldn't hold a tail number, a scheduled flight callsign, a Mode S identifier, or some combination, something usable by ATC. You could send it from the ground too, maybe even use it for a domestic SELCAL function--tap the data block on screen and your next transmission sounds an attention chime on that aircraft.

Sure, you'd hear all these chirps on the frequency, but it would be worth it, wouldn't it? And it's 20-year old technology. This is EASY from the engineering side. The politics, of course... :)