Tuesday, September 14, 2010

System Design, Air Traffic Control, and Safety

By David Rosenbaum

You’re in a plane, approaching the airport. Air controllers are watching their screens as radar sweeps through 360 degrees of air space. It takes about 12 seconds for the radar to refresh. During those 12 seconds, the screen shows where your speeding plane was 10 or 11 seconds ago, not where it is now. Does that make you feel safe? It didn’t make the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) feel safe and now Raytheon Principal Software Engineer and System Design and Management (SDM) student Firas Glaiel is helping to change that.


Photo by L. Barry Hetherington

Glaiel, whose SDM studies are sponsored by Raytheon, is the Software Development Manager for the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS), which now leverages GPS technology to give controllers a real-time picture of where every plane is at every second. Glaiel led a team of 30 developers in building an ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast) capability into the system (already deployed at Philadelphia International Airport), which is one of the first steps in the FAA’s Next Gen project to build a safer national air control system.

This capability fuses GPS data with radar data to provide to controllers a highly accurate picture of the airspace in real-time. In the past, Glaiel has worked on other air traffic management projects, including the Lockheed Martin-built En Route Air Management (ERAM) system used to track planes outside a 60-mile radius of airports. Working in air traffic management, one must satisfy all the stakeholders in the ecosystem: the FAA’s Technology Center, other contractors and subcontracting companies, and, of course, the controllers—the ultimate end-users. Addressing the interests of all these constituencies requires diplomacy, a skill it might be said Glaiel inherited.

Born in New York, the son of a career Syrian diplomat, Glaiel has lived in countries including Switzerland, Venezuela, Syria, and Lebanon, and is fluent in four languages (English, Arabic, French, and Spanish). Growing up absorbing the "mental models" of several cultures, Glaiel, who earned his B.S. in Computer Systems Engineering at B.U., believes SDM is helping him become "the engineering team’s ambassador to management."

In that role, Glaiel must "translate management issues—When is a project going to be done? How much is it going to cost?—to engineering and explain to the engineers the impact of what they’re doing on the program."

Raytheon recognized Glaiel’s management instincts and supported him in his desire to continue his education. "Others from Raytheon had gone through SDM and I though that would be better for me than an MBA," Glaiel says. "I wasn’t interested in marketing or finance per se, but I knew I needed business skill to manage a high-tech operation."

He also believes the time he spends away from work (he studies 40-50 hours a week at SDM while working 20 hours at Raytheon) will help him re-brand himself at his company as a new resource, someone who can develop and manage new lines of business.

Glaiel will recommend to Raytheon that it expand its scholarship program, as he believes that the relationship between SDM and any technology company is a win-win. "It provides the sponsoring organization with an outside perspective on their processes; it trains engineers in management, and it extends the knowledge of system dynamics through industry. That’s critical," he says.

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