Automation Background

The EFD project brought Electronic Flight Data (EFD) to domestic airspace Air Traffic Controllers in the Prestwick Centre. Prior to EFD, domestic controllers used paper flight progress strips to annotate and retain pertinent flight information as aircraft progressed through their sector of airspace. Paper strips populated with flight plan information from the NAS Flight Data Processing system were printed and delivered by hand to the controller by a member of the support staff team, before placement underneath a geographical designator on a strip board. EFD automated this entire process through use of glass display technology, whereby strips are generated on the display ‘just in time’ to enable planning of the aircraft into the sector before the controller interacts with them on first call by use of touchscreen stylus technology. This first interaction triggering a key safety benefit for the system, that of discrepancy checking between the level annotated on the strip to which the controller has cleared the aircraft and that which has been selected on the flight deck. For sectors adjacent to the Scottish boundary with Oceanic Airspace an additional safety benefit has been introduced to calculate and display any discrepancies between the planned and actual level, fix and time at which westbound aircraft enter Oceanic Airspace.

Automation Implementation

EFD was a Commercial Off-The-Shelf procurement of the Frequentis Smartstrips product, previously used in several Control Towers around the world. Its tailoring to meet the needs of the Area Control Environment posed a significant challenge which was undertaken by a large project team. Within which NATS Human Factors (HF) experts provided Human Computer Interaction knowledge and aviation industry design experience to lead a User Centred Design approach, involving the end users of the system from the inception of the project right through to its implementation – the controllers, support staff (a smaller number are required to deal with unusual flights and situations) and engineers.

  • HF enabled the design of the graphical user interface from the actual strips, through to individual data entry buttons, and specific interactions.
  • HF analysed and assessed the impacts of Human Error on the system using the NATS Human Error Safety Assurance System, in doing so ensuring any barriers necessary to mitigate hazards resulting from interaction with the system were implemented, thereby resulting in a tolerable level of operational safety risk.
  • HF managed the ergonomic impact of the introduction of the new display equipment on the controllers workstation and provided support in the development of procedures for the use of EFD and the training in its use.

Finally after decades of controllers working with Paper Flight Progress Strips HF played an important role in facilitating the safe deployment of the EFD system into the Prestwick Operation by instigating a Human Performance monitoring system. The Human Performance data gathered enabled considered decisions to be made with known impact on the ‘human in the loop’ during a staged implementation of EFD into the Live operational environment. This process took place over several months and was completed in late 2012 when the Paper Flight Progress Strip Printers were turned off and each controller had a stylus instead of a pen in their hand.

The introduction of EFD was necessary to provide an electronic platform for the Prestwick domestic operation and now after being fully operational for several months it shall soon receive its first major adaptation to include CPDLC technology, which will allow controllers to make some communications with aircraft without the use of voice over RT.

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