Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) enroute air traffic controllers started using a system called ERIDS (En Route Information Display System – the FAA loves acronyms) a few years ago. ERIDS is a computer system installed at each sector (radar position) that can access and display a variety of information controllers need while they’re working.
Unfortunately ERIDS was poorly designed and uses inferior or obsolete technology.
The idea of merging all the information controllers need into a single source is fantastic. But ERIDS is so horribly implemented that it’s hardly an improvement over previous methods used to do the same thing.
I don’t know how ERIDS was developed; it just simply showed up at our facility one day after we had had a few computer instructional courses on how to use it.
Immediately I saw the shortcomings of not only the ERIDS interface but of the entire ERIDS system.
Prior to ERIDS controllers would access the information they needed from a variety of reference books/manuals. Controllers access the information in ERIDS on a touch computer screen.
A lot of the information containted within ERIDs is critical to the safety of air traffic control. The most important information it contains is approach plates (diagrams of instrument approaches for pilots that they need to land in bad weather) and Notices to Airman (NOTAMs).
NOTAMs detail safety hazards and outages at and around airports, including such things as tall towers with lights out and runway closures as well as other equipment and/or airport problems that might affect the safety of an landing aircraft. Controllers are responsible for ensuring that aircraft get pertinent NOTAMs at their destination airport so it’s important safety-critical information.
The first significant shortcoming of ERIDS is that the display is too small without enough resolution to display some documents full screen so that they are legible. Approach plates cannot be viewed in their entirety on the ERIDS screen at a size that is readable.
Secondly ERIDS is a single task system. It can only display one piece of information at a time, even though controllers often need to access multiple information on different pages within ERIDS. There is a “back” button in ERIDS that steps backwards through the history of pages displayed, but only a single page of information can be loaded into ERIDS and displayed at one time.
It is impossible for instance to switch back and forth between two different pages of information as there is no “forward” button; only a “back” button. And once the “back” button is pressed, the previous page of information cannot be accessed directly again.
That means for instance if a controller needs to access two different approach plates for two different airports for two different aircraft landing at the same time (something that happens all the time) and easily switch back and forth between them, ERIDS is useless.
Also, there is only a single ERIDS display at each sector, even though busy sectors are worked by two or even three controllers. That means controllers have to share the ERIDS display, swinging it around the sector on its mouting arm. And because of its inability to display more than one page of information, any member of the sector team accessing information essentially eliminates the previous controller’s information, so the previous controller would have to look it up his information again if he needed it.
Preemptive multitasking (the ability to have the computer switch from one task to another) has been a common feature in home PCs since Windows 95 operating system (available in 1995). But ERIDS (deployed by the FAA over 10 years later) is only a single-task system. It’s a glaring example of a system design that lags well behind current technology.
Theoretically a huge advantage to a amalgamated computerized information system like ERIDS woud be the ability to search the many documents contained therein for information. But the search function in ERIDS works poorly, often displaying irrelevant results so controllers don’t use it, and is so tedious to use they usually instead choose to search the various documents manually. This turns the computerized databases into simple electronic versions/scans of books.
Additionally the only way to type into ERIDS is with its touch screen keyboard. But the ERIDS touch screen interface has delays built into the typing interface to prevent/false duplicate keystrokes (a common feature of touch screen keyboards), so it’s time-consuming to type anything of length into ERIDS.
Finally, intuitively one would assume that since a computer database can be easily and instantly updated that information in ERIDS would be accurate and real-time.
Unfortunately that isn’t the case. Information such as the aircraft call sign database (all air
carriers/airlines have “call signs” and abbreviations that controllers use: Northwest Airlines is NWA and called “Northwest” on the radios; British Airways is “BWA” and is called “Speedbird”) in ERIDS is only updated every so often, so new call signs are usually not included until the database is updated, sometimes months after the call sign is in use.
As recently noted in a local document in response to an ATSAP report, ERIDS is apparently only a “near real-time” system, which appears to be a contradiction of the statement on the FAA’s own website:
The ERIDS provide real-time access to air traffic control information not currently available from the Host Computer System (HCS) and makes this auxiliary information readily available to controllers.
( I’m sure the FAA would play semantic games here claiming that what they meant is that ERIDS provides “real-time access” to “near real time” information. But don’t most data systems have “real time access” and what would be the point of having real time access to non-real time data in a time critical application like air traffic control anyway?)
That means that critical time-sensitive information such as NOTAMs isn’t accurate in ERIDS. The “workaround” fix is that controllers need to check the old style paper strip NOTAMs, a system ERIDs was supposed to replace, with the NOTAMs in ERIDS. With ERIDS controllers now need to use two separate systems and reconcile the two.
Finally, it’s notable that an FAA report on the efficiency of ERIDS (a report that appears biased anyway as they didn’t interview the people who actually use ERIDS every day – air traffic controllers; instead only interviewing FAA supervisors) still shows that accessing information in ERIDS is not easier or faster than using paper reference materials.
Our expectation for the simulation task was that ERIDS access times would be much faster than searching for information in paper reference manuals. It was surprising that (ZJX) partipants were generally not faster to access information using ERIDS.
So why have I gone on and on about ERIDS and its shortcomings?
It’s because the FAA is currently working on ERAM (En Route Automation Modernization), a computer system replacement for the radar displays enroute controllers use. (Never mind the fact that the FAA is deploying ERAM despite the fact that the system is riddled with bugs and problems that are a detriment to safety.)
As it seems clear that there was little useful input from controllers during the development of ERIDS and it’s a system that could have been extremely useful and efficient had it been designed and built properly (but isn’t/wasn’t), I can only assume that ERAM, which also was built with very little controller involvement as well, will probably end up with a similar result.
Instead of being a useful tool to help controllers do their job better and more efficiently, it will probably be a system that falls far short of what it could have/should have been.
So far in our training I have seen little in ERAM that will make me do my job better or more efficiently. If anything, there are some “features” in ERAM that I believe will do exactly the opposite (like having to make two computer entries to drop an aircraft tag leaving my sector instead of one like we do now).
Call me a visionary, but doesn’t it make sense that when designing a new system you would consult with and involve the very people who the system is being built for (the experts who know exactly what they need to do their job better)?
No wonder why the FAA has problems with modernization projects. They routinely fail to significantly (if at all) involve the experts (its own employees) when designing new systems.