Air traffic management - an ongoing transformation with multidimensional challenges

Air traffic management - an ongoing transformation with multidimensional challenges

The Aviation sector, including Air Traffic Management, is experiencing a major financial crises due to the Covid-19 pandemic that challenges many parts both in the short and long term perspective. In parallel, the focus on the environment is growing and it’s a top priority. The Covid crises exposed the total functional system as not being sufficiently resilient, scalable and flexible to adapt to rapid changes. Lowering the environmental footprint,will require new solutions, innovations and ways of working. This calls for new initiatives as well as accelerating the ongoing digital transformation of ATM.

ATM is a key part of Aviationand also a part of the critical infrastructure. The main taskfor theAir Navigation Service Providers (ANSP’s) and the Air Traffic Controllers (ATCO’s)is to maintain safety by keeping the Aircrafts separated, “safety first”.Positioning of aircraft through sensors, voice and data communication, navigation aids (CNS) and ATM systems are key technical components.

Already at the beginning of the 21thcentury lack of capacity, causing delays, too high costs and the impact on the environment was discussed in Europe. It triggered the start of a European transformation, the Single European Sky (SES) initiative, including the SES legislation, the research and innovation program SESAR (SES Advanced Research) and to deploy the mature results from SESAR, later on the SESAR Deployment program.Even before Covid-19, there was criticism that the implementation of new results with real benefits is to slow. This initiated studies by European institutions and other groups, whichagain highlighted digitalization, speed of innovation, time to market, the European perspective, defragmentation and a strengthened focus on the environmental impact.

Another driver for change is the fast growth of drones, including their management (UTM), that in many cases will require full or a very high degree of automation. The influence on ATM will increase and it will accelerate digitalization. The combination with electrical aircraft provide new opportunities and in particular for the environment.

The outcome of the above mentionedstudieshave been consolidated in the new European ATM master plan and further developed in the SESAR Research and Innovation Agenda (SRIA). The third SESAR program is about to be launchedto support and accelerate the development.

A good starting point for describing thelong-term objectives of the transformation, even though we will never go there fully, is to think about the European airspace as one including sufficiently standardized systems, ways of working, regulations and airspaces. Add a digital European backbone, based on open standardized architectures, allowing for fast and simple horizontal integration of systems and services, high speed data communication between all actors and everything being cyber secured to a level accepted by all stakeholders. 

Any controller can manage the airspaceanywhere from anywhere with short lead times allowing for an efficient use of all the resources. Standardization allows for a reduction of the number of systems and the infrastructure. Less systemsmeans less energy consumption and benefits for the environment. We can start sharing data in a new way andto optimizeflights from gate to gate and many other parameters. Optimized flights will have a positive effect on the environmental footprint. Presently, there is no lack of capacity but it will happen again and there might be other crises resulting in the need for scalability and flexibilityto rapidly adapt the capacity. Everything is supported by modern agile ways of working. Increased market liberalization and defragmentation will support the objectives.

Virtualization, meaning the decoupling between staff, hardware and software is a key enabler for both airports and en-route. A good example is the development of so-called Remote Towers. The senses of the ATCO’s are replaced by cameras and other sensors at the airport and the picture of the airport is re-created by large multiple screens at a remote center. The tower is represented by a tower module which together with the large screens enables the air traffic management remotely. Many towers and airports can then be co-located to one building allowing for efficient use of resources. It also enables further support and optimization through new digital technologies and integration in the total flow. In en-route the trend is also towards virtualized controller positions.

Advanced system support to the ATCO’s is already in operation, but the next large step is AI ranging from smaller parts to full automation of parts of airspaces or during certain periods. Man and machine will work together but in the long-termperspective, a very high degree of automation is believed to be possible. This offers a significant potential for cost reductions, increased flexibility, scalability and resilience. Different actors and different countries might choose to use Automation for different purposes depending on the situation. Some will focus on the cost reduction and some will focus on resilience and flexibility or a combination. There are of course numerous challenges like change management, redundancy, regulations and safety approvals but as always they can be solved.

The digital transformationis a fact in many industry segments so why not “just do it”?A few examples of limiting factors follows. A strongculture maintained by strong regulations and the importance of safety. Many different stakeholders with sometimes different interests and perspectives,ranging from commercial interests to national security, eg a strong fragmentation. The need for local adaptationsand a balance between national and European perspectives.The market for ATMisrelatively limited. The suppliers and the customers cannot, in the same way as for other industry segments, invest based on a business case supported by a market growth. The development methodologies are still mainly traditional waterfall models leading to long leadtimes for a change. In the present crises,the capacity to invest is even more limited. The ATM systems are to a large extent still monoliths developed in close cooperationwith the customers with no open architectureslimiting new entrants and competition.Larger changes requires large investments. At the same timethere are European regulations toincentivize cost efficiency that limits the possibility to invest and on top of that we have the Covid crises.

So, there are challenges,and we should be proud of many achievements. However, since we know it has to and can be done faster with large benefits, we mustaccelerate.Basically we know what to do and the technologies are there. We have excellent programs like SESAR3 coming up and new forums like NDTECH where all stakeholders are represented so, the tools and enablers are there. We don’t lack the expertise. Everywhere you will meet highly skilled and motivated people.  What can we do more of now that we are in a situation that requires more rapid changes than ever? From a change management perspective,it is well known that the big WHY, transparency, inclusiveness and leadership are keys for success in combination with common and clear objectives that we share. How do we create room for this given the challenges and the large needs for investments?A key is cooperation, close dialogue and that the changes are stakeholder driven. We, the stakeholders have to take on the leadership together. Some people would argue that lack of funding is the main challenge and others would highlight other areas. The lack of funding is a major challenge that we have to solve, but meanwhile, If we don’t have sufficient funding, we need to prioritize and secure that we use the funding in the way that produces the best effects for the stakeholders.  Again, in order to do that, we need to improve cooperation and the close dialogue.

Weekly Brief

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