Replacement for WebTrak to go live this week

UPDATE 08/16/2013:  Its on-line ! Click PublicVue to get to the new system.  See here for additional details on the SMO web site.

SMO’s new PublicVue Flight Tracking System (Click to Enlarge)
Santa Monica Airport’s new replacement for the current WebTrak system is expected to go on-line this week.  The decision to replace the existing WebTrak system was made for a number of reasons, not the least being to access NextGen data.  However, because the City must pay an additional fee to access ‘NextGen‘ data from WebTrak, this would drive up costs.  Exelis, the creator of PublicVue, already has NextGen data and currently supports the SMO noise equipment, thus no additional fee is required.

The FAA’s NextGen system is a complete overhaul of the nation’s air transport system to use satellite based GPS navigation instead of the aging ground radars used today.  Each aircraft carries a transponder which broadcasts its position to other aircraft and ground controllers.  Among the benefits expected by the FAA are increased positional accuracy, reduced fuel and delays, and increased capacity.  One other benefit that may particularly impact SMO is that aircraft will be able to fly closer together.  As you may know the takeoff paths from the SMO runway and LAX intersect out to sea so that the two towers must coordinate IFR takeoffs (so delaying at both) in order not to violate the FAA’s mandated 3 mile separation.  This in turn led to the infamous 250 degree heading out of SMO which has triggered so much protest.

To the public using the flight tracking system, the hope is that it will bring improved accuracy in flight paths over those shown by WebTrak which we have shown to have significant accuracy problems near SMO (since WebTrak is based on the LAX radar only).  PublicVue can also be used from cell phones and tablets, unlike WebTrak (which is Flash-based), however, CASMAT did not test operation of the system on mobile platforms.  The PublicVue system is being developed by Exelis which has a number of existing flight tracking systems operating at commercial airports.  When the SMO PublicVue system goes on-line it will be the first Exelis General Aviation system in the nation to incorporate real time flight tracking (with a 10 minute delay for security purposes – down from 20 minutes for WebTrak).  Airport staff and the vendor have been working to develop a next-gen capable system that can provide the same kinds of advanced features provided by WebTrak.

SMO’s existing WebTrak Flight Tracking System (Click to Enlarge)

Airport staff have given CASMAT advanced access to the PublicVue portal in order to provide evaluation and feedback from a user perspective which will hopefully allow the developers (who are still developing as we speak) to make sure the transition to the new system goes as smoothly as possible and that critical features within WebTrak are also supported in PublicVue.  This post describes our findings in broad terms, but is also intended to provide a quick usage guide for those transitioning from WebTrak to PublicVue in order to smooth the transition.  We will of course update this post with information on how the public can access the PublicVue portal when it becomes publicly available.

The SMO WebTrak system will be going offline soon, so users will need to transition fairly quickly to the PublicVue system.  However, bear in mind that if you need to, you can always use the LAX WebTrak system which will not change – you just can’t lodge SMO complaints from there.

Evaluation of PublicVue vs. WebTrak

While we feel that the underlying technology beneath PublicVue is clearly superior to that of WebTrak in many ways, we also find the initial version of the user interface lacks some of the polish and usability the WebTrak system has.  This is perhaps to be expected from a new product that is still in development, and hopefully is no more than a phase.  The good news is that airport staff and the vendor have committed to working to overcome these problems as the system is rolled out and refined.  To this end, staff will also be seeking public feedback when the system finally goes live in order to help the refinement process.

In order to report complaints, the user must create an account with a name, address, and e-mail.  This is different from WebTrak.  The main reason for this is that it allows the system more accurately track complaints, as well as allowing the individual the chance to review past complaints and complaint status.  It also allows user preferences and options choices to be saved and restored across multiple sessions so avoiding the need to re-configure each time.  This last anticipated benefit does not yet appear to be working correctly.

There are a number of PublicVue features and benefits that we like, including the following:

  • The ability to use the system from cell phones and tablets (we did not test this).  This includes the ability to use the device location to display the map and relative aircraft attitude.
  • Multiple underlying map types are provided including Bing Aerial and Street maps (optionally labelled), OpenStreetMaps,  IFR (high and low res) and VFR.  These last two are more useful for pilots although they do show the ‘paths’ in the sky that aircraft are supposed to follow which can sometimes be useful.
  • An optional table (shown below the map) listing all flights in the area.  The results can be filtered by various criteria.
  • Live weather conditions are displayable as for WebTrak although they are not available in historical playback mode (they are on the LAX WebTrak though – weather at LAX is usually close to that at SMO).
  • Live delay has been reduced from 20 minutes to 10.  Unfortunately at present only the last hour of data is available ‘live’, after that you need to wait until the next day to review flights in the historical data.  This is a significant inconvenience and a solution is in the works.
  • There is an extensive help manual available for the system.  Some sections need to be updated to match the latest software.
  • Complaint creation (once logged in) is fully integrated, if you click on a plane in the map, most of the necessary details are filled out in the complaint and all you have to do is fill in any comments and pick from the extensive menu of complaint types.  The ability to review ones prior complaints and response status on-line is an improvement from the current system.
  • Once one’s location has been specified, relative aircraft position, bearing, altitude and azimuth can be continuously displayed.
  • The ‘follow’ mode allows one to keep the map constantly centered on a given aircraft regardless of where it goes.  One might even track flights out of LAX across the country using this feature.
  • The NextGen technology should allow tracking of planes all the way down to the ground including potentially ground maneuvers.  If you look at LAX using the system, you can already see the planes taxiing to the runways.  There are only a small number of transponder equipped aircraft at SMO, most older prop planes do not have NextGen transponders, nor are they likely to.  Such planes are displayed based on ground radar data, and so still have the positional inaccuracies we have grown used to.
On the other hand, there are a significant number of bugs and user interface behaviors that we do not like, and which we’ve documented to staff and the developers.  We are hoping that some of these at least will be fixed before the system goes live, so for now we won’t post a exhaustive list.  We’ll update this post with a full list (so that people know what to expect/avoid) of the issues remaining when the system comes on-line.  In general the current PublicVue interface may seem harder to understand and navigate, has inconsistencies and bugs, and apparently sometimes does not record activity.  As the development moves forward it is to be hoped that these issues will decline.

A guide to using PublicVue for those familiar with WebTrak

This guide is intended to get you started using PublicVue assuming you are already familiar with WebTrak, it is not intended to replace the detailed help manual provided by PublicVue.  At first sight, you may find PublicVue unfamiliar and confusing, but the information below should help you to get started with the basics enough to be comfortable with exploring on your own:

Screen Shot A – basic Flight Tracking window controls (click to enlarge)

When you first access the portal you’ll be in the ‘Home’ page which just shows an introductory message.  To get to the flight tracking page you are used to with WebTrak, click on ‘Flight Tracking’ in the portal menu ‘A-6’ (see screen shot A above).  You may see up to three areas of the screen.  The left side rectangle is the ‘menu area’ and gives access to all the tools and options and individual flight details.  If you want to increase screen area for the map you can toggle menu visibility using the ‘Hide/Show Menu’ button ‘A-6’.

The lower rectangular area is known as the ‘table’ and you can hide that (if showing) to increase screen space for the map by toggling the ‘Hide/Show Table’ button ‘A-7’.  The table shown the aircraft details for aircraft in (or recently in) the scene.  You can click on a row to immediately see the location of that aircraft on the map.  Don’t be surprised if the aircraft is far away by now, maybe in another state; you probably clicked in an overflight or LAX aircraft.  Whenever you get lost in the map like this you can always get back to SMO by clicking on the aircraft symbol in the middle of the ‘pan’ control ‘A-1’.  You can zoom the map display in/out using the zoom control ‘A-2’.  If you currently have the ‘Details’ tab in the menu area showing when you click on a row in the table, the rest of the menu area will show the details for the flight involved.  This is also true if you click on a given aircraft icon in the map.  In this later case you also see a note window next to the aircraft involved which shows more limited information about the flight and also provides additional controls.

You can filter the aircraft shown in the table by either typing text into the title field of a column (e.g., flight ID), or by choosing from the popup menu you find there (e.g., Origin).

The ‘locate’ icon ( ‘A-4’ ) in the top left of the map area will use the location of your computer or portable device to center the map so that you can see what is near you.

The overlay stack icon ‘A-3’ is just above the locate icon and allows you to choose the type of map you want to utilize with the system.  When you click on it you’ll see a popup menu of choices as shown to the left.

The top half contains a set of radio buttons allowing you to choose different map types.  Feel free to play with them in order to see which type of map you prefer.  If you find tracks and aircraft icons hard to see against particular map types, you can change them under the ‘Options’ menu (see below).

The lower half of the popup allows you to toggle on and off the display of various types of aircraft in the map.  This can be handy to un-clutter things.   The ‘Live Weather’ checkbox does not appear to have any effect at present.

The ‘Zoom To’ button at the bottom of the menu will zoom the map location to the currently selected aircraft if any.  The ‘Follow’ button next to it causes the map to constantly center around the selected aircraft as it moves.  This can be handy for following a specific aircraft over time.  Note that the ‘+’ sign at the top of the note window associated with a selected aircraft is an alternate way of entering ‘follow mode’.

If you choose the ‘Tools’ tab in the menu area, you will see the display shown to the right.  To find an address and mark it with an icon on the map, type that address into the fields shown and click ‘Locate’.  You will see a floating window similar to that shown to the left – you can either locate to that point (see ‘A-4’ above) or place a home symbol there (as shown by the house icon in the screen shot).

Having defined a location like this, clicking on the right-angled triangle symbol in the note window associated with a selected flight in the map will bring up an additional informational note window showing you the relative position of the aircraft to the home location.  This allows you to see how far away and how high the plane is and the angle it subtends to you the observer.  This useful feature (shown to the right) is similar to the WebTrak equivalent (shown to the left).

Clicking on the ‘Weather Display’ button in the ‘Tools’ tab of the menu shows the current weather conditions at SMO in a re-positionable sub-window as shown to the left.  Currently this only works when viewing ‘live’ tracks, not in playback mode (see below).

Clicking the ‘Create Complaint’ button initiates the complaint creation process (for the flight selected if there is one at the time).  We will talk about complaints later on.  Note that you can also initiate a complaint by clicking on the red exclamation mark symbol on the bottom left of the ‘note’ window associated with a selected flight.

Turning now to the ‘Replay’ tab under the menu (see screen shot to the right), this allows you to choose between live playback (all discussions above) and historical flights.  Choosing historical allows you to enter a desired time using a calendar by clicking on the ‘Start Time’ control and then on the ‘Go!’ button.  The system will load one hour of buffered historical flight track data starting from the time you specify.  You may click on the ‘Show Replay Playback Controls’ button below to bring up re-positionable the ‘Playback Controls’ sub-window shown in the screen shot.  The popup in this sub-window allows you to control playback speed.  The slider control in the middle allows you to move through the buffered time frame either by dragging or clicking another point on the slider, but unfortunately at present it does not allow smooth and continuous display of the flight tracks as you move around in the same way that WebTrak does.  Hopefully this will be fixed soon as these playback controls are among the weakest area of the PublicVue user interface.  The +/- 1m controls below allow more fine grained navigation, but again their operation leaves much to be desired.  To pause the playback click ‘Pause’.

If you have a flight selected in playback mode, you will notice an additional control in the associated note window that looks like a slanting S.  If you click on this the map will show the entire trace for the aircraft involved.  As you can see the plane selected in the example above was engaged in pattern flying.  When you reach the end of the playback period, you will see a prompt window (screen shot to the left) allowing you to  continue to the next time period.  This interface is a usability improvement over the current SMO WebTrak approach.

So thats about it for the basics of the Flight Tracking window.  If you click on the ‘Options’ button at the top of the menu area, you can customize and alter your display in a wide variety of ways.  Below are examples of the options available.  We anticipate more functionality in this area as it currently operates somewhat sub-optimally, particularly as far as preserving choices made with the user’s profile so that they are remembered in future sessions.

We will not go into the effects of each of these options, they are all relatively self-explanatory.

Last but not least, lets go over the process you use to register a complaint.  As discussed above you can get here either by choosing ‘Complaint’ in the main portal menu, by clicking on the ‘Create Complaint’ button under the ‘Tools’ tab in the menu area, or by clicking the red exclamation point icon on the note window associated with a selected flight in the map display.

In all cases if you haven’t already done so you will have to create a user account and log in.  This allows your complaints to be organized and tracked and also in the future will allow saving and restoration of other options and configuration choices you have made.  You must supply a number of details including an e-mail address that will be used to communicate with you regarding complaint status.  Once you have logged in you will see the ‘Complaint Menu’ down the left side of the display as shown below:

In the screen shot above we have chosen ‘Review’ to look at our past registered complaints.  Note the ‘Airport’ field at the right hand end that allows you to monitor response status from airport staff.  Clicking on ‘View’ for any given complaint shows the entire complaint details.

The ‘Submit New’ menu item allows you to enter a new complaint from scratch, however, if you have already created an account and logged in, and you have already selected a flight on the map and used one of the other ways to create a complaint, most of the work has already been done for you; the display you will see initially will look something like that shown to the left.  This is a much easier way to fill out a complaint, since most of the details are already filled in.  For replay data, those details include the disturbance time, for live data they apparently do not.  Note that the flight details have been pre-filled out.   First we pick the issue from the ‘Disturbance Type’ popup (see screen shot to the left – note the large number of choices available – shown below).

Next (if not already done), you must enter the disturbance start time and optionally end time if appropriate – shown to the left.  Note that you must chose the time (unless already done) using the sliders below in addition to choosing the date, if you don’t, airport staff may not be able to identify the flight involved in order to process your complaint.  For live tracks, you can click on the ‘Now’ button to set the time to right now, but since there is a 10 minute delay in the live map playback, presumably you cannot yet see the aircraft you are complaining about on the map if you do so.

When you are happy with your submission, click ‘Create Complaint’.  You complaint will be added to the database and you can review it immediately or return later to see if there has been any response.

The remaining entries in the Complaint/Profile menu are self evident in operation.

We hope that this brief overview will allow you to transition quickly and painlessly to the PublicVue system when it comes on line.  Remember airport staff are interested in your feedback on the system, it is still under development.  You can contact them as shown in the ‘Contact Us’ menu for PublicVue.  We will update this post, particularly the bugs and issues list once the system goes live to the public.

Finally CASMAT would like to thank airport staff for their openness on this and other matters. Particular thanks go to Stelios Makrides, Acting Airport Manager, for his on-going willingness to solicit and act upon public input.

Update 08/14/2013: Re-tested with updated software – a number of issues are now fixed.  The portal is expected to go live this Friday.

Update 08/15/2013: Per e-mail from Stelios Makrides

PublicVue will be replacing WebTrak effective Friday, September 16, 2013 and more detailed information about the new system will be posted at (<>) at that time.

Some of PublicVue’s advantages are:

 *   the robust system engine that allows information to be accessed on smart phones, tablets and desktop computers;
 *   the tracking system is based on the FAA’s Next Gen Technology which provides higher fidelity flight tracking and greater precision than older radar-based systems;
 *   It allows users to customize their views;
 *   a reduced live delay from 20+minutes with WebTrak down to 10 minutes;
 *   the ability for the public to view historic complaints submitted in this system.

We anticipate a seamless transition from WebTrak to PublicVue and welcome the public’s input to improve the program as we move forward.

Noise management staff will be available to assist the public with any questions or concerns in using this system.  They can be reached at 310-458-8692.