Air traffic control chief: Humans will always be in the loop

Air traffic control will retain a distinctly human element in the years to come. [Photo: Shutterstock]

Air traffic management is the focus of some serious EU-funded research and development. The aim of much of the work is to improve its efficiency and win gains like improved safety and smaller carbon footprint. One of the main figures behind the project explained it all to EURACTIV.

Florian Guillermet is executive director of the SESAR Joint Undertaking. He answered questions asked by EURACTIV’s transport editor, Sam Morgan.

What has SESAR’s work mostly focused on over the last few years in terms of ATM developments?

The SESAR joint undertaking was set up ten years ago to research and develop ways to modernise European air traffic management (ATM). Regular institutional evaluations have acknowledged that we have succeeded in transforming a previously fragmented R&D environment into a coordinated one, pooling the resources and expertise of airspace users, air navigation service providers and airports, and leveraging support and contributions from  Eurocontrol and the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme. We have also defined a common modernisation roadmap and delivered a comprehensive set of solutions. Each solution offers quantifiable performance improvements particularly in terms of optimising airspace capacity and ensuring greater sustainability of Europe’s ATM – implementations of these solutions have already taken place in and outside Europe. More recently, we have started research into the services and technologies needed for the safe and secure integration of drones, in support of the European Commission’s U-space initiative.

Who has SESAR mostly been in dialogue with mostly in recent years? Does everything go through the Commission? Are other actors like Eurocontrol a big part of the conversation?

Everyone is part of the conversation. That includes Eurocontrol, which is a co-founder and a key contributor. Modernising a system as complex as this requires the involvement of all those stakeholders that contribute to it, from the decision-makers that regulate it, the organisations and staff that operate it to the academic and industry stakeholders that research, design and manufacture it. It is for this reason that SESAR Joint Undertaking was co-founded by the EU and Eurocontrol as a public-private partnership back in 2007. The rationale was to connect Europe’s aviation policy priorities with research, and research with the real operational and performance needs of the industry, which in turn is fed back into policy. 

SESAR Joint Undertaking is now made up of 19 permanent members, including national air navigation service providers and the manufacturing industry from Europe. SESAR Joint Undertaking is also partners with airports and airlines working at the front line of delivering better connectivity, and, with that, greater mobility for Europe’s citizens and air passengers. Added to that are staff associations, regulators, the Network Manager at Eurocontrol, the military and the scientific community, all of which are important partners in the SESAR JU R&D family.

In the last two years, stakeholders from the drone market, including SMEs and start-ups, have come on board, through our exploratory research and demonstration strand of activities, to work on the integration of these vehicles into the airspace. This extensive partnership approach has given Europe greater influence in the global aviation arena, particularly in aligning modernisation programmes with other world regions, setting international standards and shaping the Global Air Navigation Plan of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

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SESAR’s mission statement mentions developing the next generation of ATM. What does this mean in practice? Using and improving existing systems and infrastructure or does it require complete replacement in certain areas?

ATM needs to be operational 24/7 because aircraft are flying pretty much around the clock. So it is impossible to simply replace legacy systems in one fell swoop.

Our vision is to make a progressive yet fundamental shift from today’s bespoke and physically-based system, towards a system of systems that is more modular- and service oriented, underpinned by commonly agreed standards. This transformation is essentially a digital one, since we are taking advantage of the wide range of technologies available, from artificial intelligence and big data, to advanced satellite navigation (EGNOS/Galileo) and augmented reality.

One of the SESAR Joint Undertaking solutions that best reflects this transformation are remote towers. Using the latest video and sensor technologies we have shown how traffic in and out of airports, no matter where they are, can be managed safely from a distance. Solutions such as these are enabling airports in the remotest parts of Europe to stay open for business and remain connected to the rest of the continent. All of which is essential for the flow of capital, goods and services, and critical for an interconnected European economy.

To what extent will future ATM systems preserve the human component of the job? Will factors like artificial technology and machine learning reduce the need for workers?

Air traffic control is very labour-intensive job. As traffic grows, we are looking at automated technologies that can ease the workload, enabling controllers and pilots to focus on more highly-complex and safety-critical tasks and manage the traffic more efficiently. We work very closely with air traffic controllers to test any new technologies and are assessing how these will impact decision-making and concentration levels. So there will always be a human in the loop, machines will not replace humans in air traffic control.

Is there a close relationship with manufacturers? Do new aircraft benefit from the work done by SESAR?

We have the biggest names in the European aviation manufacturing industry as part of our membership. That includes not just the companies manufacturing the ground systems but those designing and building aircraft and aircraft systems. It makes sense to ensure coordination between them and the other stakeholders so that we have a general consensus on future needs, the research and technology investments and the timeline for achieving our collective vision.

Aircraft manufacturers are delivering new aircraft fleet equipped with avionics allowing essential coordination with the ground ATM systems. For example, in March this year, Airbus delivered to EasyJet 100 of its A320neo equipped with FANS-C technology, enabling aircraft to share their trajectory in real time with air traffic control, thereby improving air traffic flow.

In the coming months, Airbus will deliver new aircraft to Air France, British Airways, Iberia, Novair, Thomas Cook and Wizz Air, and will lead a large-scale demonstration with these airlines to demonstrate at full scale this capability within SESAR Joint Undertaking. We are also working closely with the Clean Sky Joint Undertaking – the R&D public-private partnership developing innovative, cutting-edge green technology for aircraft – to ensure a convergence between our respective programmes.

Is there a limit to how much ATM can be improved, stretched and tweaked or is there limitless potential when it comes to aircraft and flight numbers?

Yes and no. The limitations of the system are closely related to how the system evolved over time. When air traffic control centres were first set up, they were built close to radars or radio antennas, within the line of sight of flying aircraft. As traffic increased, the airspace above the centres was divided into an ever-increasing number of adjacent sectors, allowing controllers to manage the aircraft safely at any given time.

The system today still relies on this sectorised approach to managing traffic in Europe. As a result, available capacity in the system is geographically constrained and cannot be activated when and where required to accommodate traffic demand dynamically. It also means that if one air traffic control centre has a problem, that problem will inevitably spread.

SESAR Joint Undertaking has developed technologies that can progressively move ATM from a manual to an increasingly automated system, which is more scalable and responsive to the demand and complexity of traffic. We’ve demonstrated that by aligning ways of working across air traffic control centres, we can maximise capacity. We also now have the means to improve airspace design and render its management more dynamic. The virtualisation of data services and introduction of satellite-based services for communications, navigation and surveillance have great potential to defragment Europe’s airspace, providing capacity to the right place at the right time.

In 2018 the European Parliament invited the Commission to investigate a way forward out of this situation. With support from Eurocontrol’s Network Manager, we developed a proposal for an airspace architecture aimed at leveraging the technologies available, while decoupling service provision from local infrastructure. Ultimately, it is about delivering the capacity required to cope with traffic increase but as well optimising all trajectories from an environmental standpoint.

Aviation’s environmental impact is a cause for concern but improved air traffic management has been touted as a way of making the sector more green. What are the main ways ATM can help there?

Forecasts suggest that demand for air travel will continue to grow in Europe and globally. We cannot ignore that reality. And it makes addressing the environmental impact of aviation all the more important. While inefficiencies in ATM account for a fraction of overall aviation emissions, it is nevertheless our obligation to ensure that air traffic operates as environmentally efficient as possible.

For example, airspace capacity bottlenecks result in aircraft burning fuel unnecessarily on the ground before take-off and in the air when flying longer. We are working to reduce the carbon footprint of a flight from start to finish, delivering solutions to reduce taxi-out times at the airport, and to optimise the aircraft trajectory once it is airborne so that it can fly the most fuel-efficient route possible.

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