[Avionics Today 11-6-2014] The benefits of the FAA's close collaboration with the aviation industry and unions on NextGen implementation is starting to become more evident; especially the agency's close work with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). One example of this is the continued progress transitioning Air Traffic Control (ATC) facilities from the legacy Common Automated Radar Terminal System (CARTS) to the Standard Automation Replacement System (STARS), which is on track for deployment at more than 90 facilities over the next four years.
Raytheon, the prime contractor for the Air Traffic Controller (ATC) system upgrade, describes STARS as a command and control system that provides integration of flight plan data and aircraft surveillance for Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facilities. The system presents air traffic information to controllers on high-resolution, 20-inch displays and is capable of tracking up to 1,350 airborne aircraft simultaneously within a terminal area, according to Raytheon. Billings, Mont., became the most recent tower/TRACON to transition to STARS, making it the last to receive STARS deployment in fiscal 2014.
"Billings is yet another stepping-stone toward our incredibly aggressive deployment schedule in 2015, 2016, and 2017,” said TAMR Phase 3 Segment 2 Lead Scott Robillard (K90).
One of the most challenging aspects of transitioning these facilities from the legacy CARTS system to the new STARS system is the issue of managing current air traffic within the National Airspace System (NAS) while implementing the new technology and training controllers to use it. This transition occurs while controllers are still responsible for managing more than 87,000 flights per day on average throughout the NAS.
"We're being asked to transition to the new system while not impacting airline schedules, not impacting the NAS and basically do it invisibly. To the flying public nobody knows that we're doing this because it is invisible to them," said Mitch Herrick, who serves as the national lead on terminal automation and facility realignment for NATCA. "To do that you have to develop a transition and training strategy where one day they're using the old system and the next day they come in and they're using the new system and nothing ever stops or changes. Its a very delicate balance, making sure you make those transitions at the right time of day when the traffic is lower and the right controllers are on hand and those sorts of things."
STARS is needed to accommodate other new technology that is part of the FAA's NextGen modernization of NAS-wide Air Traffic Management (ATM). The technology was first introduced in the late 1990s at some medium-sized ATC facilities. By the end of 2006, there were a total of 43 STARS systems online, according to the FAA.
Right now, STARS is proving to be even more beneficial as other elements of the NextGen program continue to be implemented. For example, earlier this year the FAA completed the network of Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) ground stations. With STARS, controllers can start using ADS-B surveillance data, which was not possible with the legacy CARTS system.
"The biggest benefit for the flying public is the ability to now utilize and incorporate all of the NextGen technologies that are being deployed throughout the country and now, all of a sudden with ADS-B, with the new system, we now have the ability to utilize ADS-B as a radar source input directly into STARS and it becomes a fused radar," said Herrick. "Its one of multiple sources that we use rather than one source to display the radar targets. Its a much more accurate much more robust system."
In 2015, the NextGen TAMR program will continue to implement STARS throughout the NAS at multiple facilities including; RSW, NCT, MAF, A80, M98, EVV, MDT, SAV, SGF, FAT, SDF, SCT, SBN, LFT, GSO, TYS, and ACY.