Air traffic management: the improvements brought by digital transformation
With the first flying cars currently being prototyped and the imminent arrival of aviation drones, which will become part of low-cost and fare-cost airlines’ fleets, it is safe to say that air traffic management is brimming with potential for innovation.
This situation, combined with a 6.3% increase in demand for air transport and record load factors of 80.5%, explains the efforts undertaken by the complex modernisation programmes such as SESAR in Europe, NextGen in the USA and the Asia-Pacific bilateral agreements.
Thanks to these initiatives, some promising solutions such as performance-based navigation and remote towers could soon see the light of day. Many of them would help reduce costs; cut congestion at airports, especially airport hubs; improve passenger safety and enhance the customer experience while minimising environmental impact.
The European Commission’s objectives for the SESAR (Single European Sky ATM Research) programme are ambitious: triple capacity to reduce ground and air delays (with an expected 50% increase in air traffic by 2035), increase safety ten-fold, cut the environmental impact of flights by 10% (fuel consumption, air quality, noise reduction) and provide airspace users with an ATM service that costs half as much.
The first phase of the SESAR 1 programme, from 2008 to 2016, included over 400 projects, 350 validations, 30,000 flight trials and invested 20 million hours to build and validate solutions to the current and future stakeholders in ATM. Thanks to this intensive work, the SESAR JU partnership delivered more than 90 industrial prototypes as well as over 60 operational and technical solutions, either totally original or showing a major improvement to the current technology.”
Interoperability and information sharing
An automated and global air traffic management system would considerably improve efficiency, while at the same time reducing fuel consumption by approximately 10%, or even more in the EU, where the fragmentation of airspace is seen as an obstacle to achieving these goals.
What’s more is that, within 20 years, over 400,000 remote-controlled vehicles (civil drones) will operate in Europe’s skies, flying for over 7 times as many hours as piloted aircraft.
Vodafone and Alphabet (Google), who are investing heavily in self-driving transport, are both working on solutions in anticipation of the saturated airspace caused by these new machines.
Consequently, as airspace continues to grow ever more busy and complex, it seems increasingly evident that sharing all the data used by air navigation services providers and aircraft manufacturers is essential to optimising the air transport system as a whole
Sustainable and intelligent ATM
Besides pooling and standardising information for all the network’s participants, another factor that could greatly help cut airport costs and waiting times, especially inside airports, is the introduction of predictive systems to optimise air traffic.
As it happens, 20% of airport congestion is not due to weather conditions but to too much traffic. Better runway and airspace management could thus carry great potential.
A predictive data management model that takes into account all the aircraft in flight, real-time changes in weather conditions and any other relevant criteria (e.g. optimising flight time or fuel) would considerably improve traffic flow.
Questioned during the fourth Paris Air Forum, Tom Enders, CEO of Airbus, said: “Today, the use of data is at the heart of the Airbus model and was especially vital to the success of the A350 programme…With all the tools and data at our disposal, we can definitely envisage software to automatically optimise flights and avoid collisions.”
In addition to ground-based radar systems, satellite surveillance would bring larger coverage, more precise localisation as well as new communication methods through automated messages for routine operations. We could see such technology implemented as early as 2018.
Virtualisation and cybersecurity
The introduction of these new systems requires a security-first approach to guarantee data reliability and integrity, and by extension, the safety of passengers.
In the WannaCry era, we cannot talk about centralising information without the fear of cyber threats, which could be potentially catastrophic in the air transport management sector.
Cybersecurity, cryptography and connectivity must thus be minutely analysed and form the foundations for these new management models. Rather than thinking in terms of functionality, protecting data should be the priority when designing these new data management systems to minimise risks and their effects.
Much of today’s emerging technology that could simplify the lives of tomorrow’s air traffic controllers, such as voice recognition, eye tracking, holograms and augmented reality (notably with Hololens), could also make data more easily accessible.
One notable example is remote air control towers, where additional flight and aircraft information could be superimposed on the controller’s HD screens.
Whatever the future has in store, if this transformation is to be a success, every single stakeholder must actively contribute to the restructuring, and be involved in the planning, design and implementation of these new solutions.
From traditional players to new arrivals, a successful transformation will be founded upon diverse human and financial resources and upon new open collaboration methods.