ERCIM News No.32 - January 1998

Mefisto: Designing User Interfaces for Air Traffic Control

by Fabio Paternò

The Mefisto project intends to contribute to the design of user interfaces for safety critical interactive systems with special reference to Air Traffic Control (ATC) applications. With the predicted increases in the volume of air traffic for the next millennia, software solutions to problems of air traffic control are attractive. The aim is to develop a method with associated tools and techniques for engineering the design, development and evaluation of user interfaces for ATC systems. The method will be applicable to other safety critical interactive systems.

Air traffic forecasts are normally based on passenger demand and economic factors, under the assumption that there is no limitation in the air traffic system itself; however, it is obvious that there are constraints limiting the expansion of the number of flights. The number and duration of delays, especially during peak hours (estimated at a cost of 2 billion dollars annually) show that ATC and airports are not always able to cope with the demand. This growing air traffic increases the possibility of accidents and requires more sophisticated techniques for its management. An approach is needed that can support the design of user interfaces satisfying both usability and safety requirements.

Air Traffic Control is an important application area for European industry, and one in which many problems remain to be solved. For example, several air traffic control incidents have occurred because of the undesired effects of interactions of operators or the lack of efficiency of current systems; this results, at best, as a waste of time both for air traffic controllers and for pilots.

The novelty of the Mefisto project lies in the application of recent software technologies (multimodal user interfaces with possible vocal and data links) to a relevant application area (Air Traffic Control). Formal models are used to address both software problems (such as the choice of the media to support user interactions and the design of the structure of the software architecture) and human related factors (such as the influence of task structure and cognitive capabilities on the software specification). This structured approach contrasts with the more commonly used direct manipulation interface development tools that, while suitable for generating simple graphical interfaces, are less appropriate for complex requirements or novel interfaces. In addition the approach deals with the design of user interfaces for usable, safety critical applications by providing formalisms, design rules and tools for the engineering of such applications. We want to capture usability and safety requirements for ATC applications and check their satisfaction at both the formal specification and the implementation levels. We do not intend to deal with all usability and safety requirements. We are interested in a representative set of requirements at the intersection of these two viewpoints on the system. We develop and use various tools to support the different phases of the design cycle: to express the task model, to translate it into an architectural model, to verify properties of the possible user-application dialogues, to prototype implementations, to evaluate the usability of prototypes.

Mefisto has three main objectives:

The MEFISTO project is a three-year Reactive Long Term Research in the Esprit Programme which started in September '97. CNUCE-CNR is the prime contractor of the consortium which also includes Alenia (a developer and supplier of ATC/ATM systems), CENA (Centre d'Etudes de la Navigation Aerienne, in cooperation with SOFREAVIA), University of Toulouse I, University of York, DRA-DERA (Defence Evaluation and Research Agency of the UK Ministry of Defence), E.N.A.V. (the Italian association of air traffic controllers) and University of Siena. For more information on MEFISTO see:

Please contact:

Fabio Paternò - CNUCE - CNR
Tel: +39 50 593289

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