Automation Background

Over 30 years Austro Control used a conventional paper strip system to control the Austrian airspace in a safe and efficient way. Over the last decade the aviation industry has changed rapidly introducing new high technical aircraft (e.g. A380, B787 Dreamliner) as well as new systems and technology (datalink, medium term conflict detection, remote tower) to meet the ever increasing demands to safety, capacity, efficiency, punctuality and environment. With the introduction of increased automation it became quickly apparent that the role of the human operator needed to change from active piloting, controlling or maintaing aircraft to passive monitoring and managing automated systems. In this new role the human operator has to rely on the automated system to produce correct data. Interpreting large data sets from multiple sources, reacting to automatic task lists and dealing with error messages resulting from system self-diagnoses are part of the daily operations now.

Today we can’t imagine life without automation and the improvements along with it. However, we must not forget the enormous technical, ethical, organizational and safety challenges automation brings along.

Automation Development

In 2005 Austro Control decided to replace the conventional air traffic control system using printed paper strips with a new generation air traffic management system (TopSky) including a stripless environment managed through system coordination (SYSCO). The system migration was carried out successfully overnight from 27th to 28th of February 2013 without interrupting operations. The total cost of the implementation was about €60 million and the changeover is expected to boost capacity by 20–30%. At present Austro Control handles about 1.1 million flight movements per year in Austrian airspace. The new TopSky system is one of the most advanced of its kind, and will bring significant air traffic management service improvements. The TopSky system is a joint development by cooperation between five ANSPs (COOPANS) based on Thales Air Systems’ TopSky technology. The COOPANS partners are Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, Austria and Croatia. So a common development is agreed throughout all those ANSPs.

Back in 2005 a multiyear, multistage project across multiple interfaces (air traffic management, engineering, training etc.) was set up feeding lesson learnt and best practices back into the COOPANS group and directly reporting progress to the Austrian National Supervisory Authority.

Automation Implementation

One of the biggest challenges in the project was to get the end users (ATCOs) to buy into the project, as most of them had been used to work with the conventional paper strips for their entire career and were therefore quite resistant to change to a stripless system. The new system presented a major modification to the ATCO working method, as well as human machine interface. The biggest challenge however was to change the working philosophy for the ATCO from a system in which the ATCO is the “working and thinking“ part, to a philosophy in which he is “monitoring and managing” a system. In order to gain the ATCOs’ acceptance early key operational staff such as on the job trainers, supervisors, local competence assessors, representatives from staff unions, critical incident stress management peers, local safety committee members and safety peers were involved in the transition from old to new system. This core group consisting of 20 ATCOs was responsible to review the new system from an operational perspective, set up a transition training plan and organise a smooth changeover.

Human Factors Involvement

Austro Control was the first ANSP in the COOPANS group to perform a dedicated human factors assessment looking at aspects of situation awareness, workload, communication, coordination effort, as well as efficiency and safety buffers. The human factors assessment was carried out for 155 licensed ATCOs concerned with the change. The assessment was timed once on the “old” (at the time current system) to gain a baseline reference and at four additional times during the transition period (during simulator training, during live shadow operations, one week after the changeover in reduced traffic amounts per sector and finally during normal operations). The assessment included self-ratings, short interviews and behaviour observations by a dedicated human factors expert.

Specific measures resulting from the HF assessment included in between others:

  • Extended live shadow operations 12 weeks prior to the changeover;
  • Evaluation of main TopSky skills through trainers at the end of each training module;
  • Dedicated voluntary reporting for all errors experienced during simulation, shadow and live operations;
  • Reduced capacity with all sectors open during the first weeks after the changeover;
  • Detailed information and communication (e-briefings) with respect to new working methods, known system bugs, reporting and human factors awareness (workload and stress management, habits and automation etc.);
  • A minimum of 100h working time (net) on the new system for part-time ATCOs (less than 50% of their time in the ops-room); and
  • Dedicated TopSky experts peers (trainers) available during the first weeks of operation after the changeover to answer open questions and provide supervision where required.

In conclusion due to the early involvement of the ATCOs in the project and to the extensive use of Human Factor expertise it was possible to organise a safe and efficient changeover during live operations without noticeable interruption to the customer. Finally, the whole project took place during live operations, and all changes were made in the same operations room. The disturbance to the customers (e.g. airliners) could be kept to a minimum extent as the sector planning was handled flexibly in order to reach the highest capacity, while maintaining the highest safety level.

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