• Second Century
  • Posts
  • ✈️ #16: How digitization is future-proofing air traffic control 🗼

✈️ #16: How digitization is future-proofing air traffic control 🗼

⏱️ TL;DR

  • Air Traffic Management (ATM) needs to become more digitized to safely facilitate the growth of flight movements in the (near) future.

  • Especially lower level airspace is going to see some newcomers.

  • Fortunately, the technology that will be the foundation for future digital ATM-systems is already being implemented.

Want to know more? Scroll some more ⬇️

I have discussed in several issues of this newsletter how digital technologies are shaping the future of aviation. Mostly from the perspective of how digitization will enhance the autonomous flying capabilities of aircraft. This issue discusses the digital transformation of Air Traffic Management (ATM) systems. Which is fundamental to facilitate the growth of operational concepts like Urban Air Mobility, Regional Air Mobility and the growth in number of flights world wide in general.

Silent control rooms

What the future of ATM looks like is perfectly stated by Vincent Lambercy in issue 6 the FoxATM podcast. He states that “control rooms will become more silent”. Aiming at Air Traffic Controllers interacting with pilots less by voice and more by text. 

An operational example of this is Controller Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC). This is a data-link system that both controllers and pilots can use to transmit strategic, non urgent, messages. From the controller side the system is capable of sending clearances like level assignments, lateral deviations and speed assignments. Pilots can reply to these messages in a standard format or by using free text. Thereby replacing regular voice communication.

And that’s not the only way how digitization has already affected the work of Air Traffic Controllers.

Another example is digital tower operations. This means that the controllers are not physically located at the airport they provide ATM-services for but use digital systems to interact with local traffic. The Swedish company Saab plays a pioneering role in developing and implementing this technology and has done so already at several Swedish airports and London City airport.

Juliet Kennedy, operations director at NATS (UK air traffic services), states: “Digital tower technology tears up a blueprint that’s remained largely unchanged for 100 years, allowing us to safely manage aircraft from almost anywhere, while providing our controllers with valuable new tools that would be impossible in a traditional control tower.”

The video below gives a short impression of what the digital tower looks like at London City airport.

The current benefit of this technology is that airports that don’t have sufficient controllers living in the vicinity can use the capacity of controllers at remote locations. Or to clear out real estate at airports with limited space available, as is the case with London City.

At the same time, this technology is creating the foundation for future ATM services. When combining the digital tower technology with the technology to (partially) conduct air traffic control by using a data-link, an important step towards controlling unmanned aircraft can be made.

A bottom-up revolution

It’s a good thing that ATM service providers are progressing in that direction because the use of airspace is going to change rapidly in the upcoming decade. Starting at the bottom.

Almost all new types of aviation, like drones and other unmanned aerial vehicles, will operate in lower level airspaces. The same airspace level in which airports are located and where unmanned aviation needs to interact with regular aircraft and air traffic controllers.

And it is this interaction between manned and unmanned aviation that can only be established by using advanced digital technologies.

For example, the data that is shared between an unmanned aerial vehicle and its on-ground operator can also be used to inform air traffic controllers and pilots via a data link. Thereby enhancing the situational awareness of the humans in the increasingly crowded airspace. And in a more distance future, controllers could be able to send instructions to autonomous aircraft in case of an emergency. Ordering them to land at the nearest landing zone for example.

And since aircraft will be operating to and from an increasing amount of airports (even though they could be really small) digital towers will become more relevant. Making it possible to provide more airports with ATM-services than ever before.

The topics discussed in this issue only scratch the surface of what role digitization will play in the future of ATM. I haven’t even touched upon the frameworks that EASA and NASA are developing to facilitate hybrid airspaces consisting of manned and unmanned aircraft. So, still a lot more to come in future issues!

If you have any questions or suggestions you can contact me via [email protected] or send me a message via LinkedIn.

For more about me, visit giel.io