76th SMXG: Software and hardware for safe landings

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- Editor's note: This is the last in a series on the mission of the 76th Software Maintenance Group.

The 76th Software Maintenance Squadron is more than repairing bugs within a line of code. The Test Program Set and Operational Flight Program divisions occasionally combine their efforts of software code writing and hardware development into a complete package, further advancing the computerized technology of the Air Force.

Air Traffic Control and Landing System is one of many examples of the unique work performed by 76th SMXG of both hardware and software development. ATCALS is an automated, mobile landing and communication system that gives communication and controls of an air traffic control tower in an austere environment.

"We actually designed the hardware, the user interface, communication mechanisms between the various pieces of hardware and all of the software," said Dr. Doug Blake, 76th SMXG director. "It's a great example that shows how we are able to pull everything together from working with the user to actually creating a system that goes out the door."

ATCALS allows incoming aircraft to communicate with the mobile air traffic control tower, emergency services, and guide them safely to the ground via radios and precision approach and aerial surveillance radar. Primarily used by the Air National Guard, ATCALS guides aircraft to the ground on their local runway in a garrison environment. When deployed, ATCALS enables aircraft to safely land in any environment, including a major highway if necessary, said Clint Roberson, lead project engineer.

With funding allocated through a program office on base, the 76th SMXG was tasked to upgrade an outdated communication system platform. Engineers within the 76th SMXG redesigned ATCALS with more modern hardware, as well as updated software. The project is currently in the development phase.

The command center for ATCALS is a small trailer that rests next to the runway. Maintaining and repairing outdated parts is not an easy task, said Clint Roberson, ATCALS lead project engineer. The new parts have to be custom built, which can be a large expenditure for the Air Force.

"We are taking the existing communication system and advancing it about 20 years in technology," he said. "We are trying to solve all of these problems at once by using commercial equipment, modern methodologies, and are providing room for future expansion capabilities. This will replace aging technology that is difficult to maintain. All of those things will be overcome with a network-centric, peer-to-peer system that we can maintain ourselves."

This project utilizes four to six 76th SMXG engineers for the development and implementation of the new ATCALS system. Dr. Blake said those numbers exponentially grow with the number of projects taken on by 76th SMXG.

"Take this project and the number of workers, multiply it by 100, and that's how much stuff is going on in the 76th SMXG," he said. "It is a tremendously complex, challenging, interesting, unique environment that produces all of these really cool products. This is just one example of something you would never expect to go on inside this building."