Off The Blocks?

Paul Ravenhill from the UK-based Think Research consultancy presents an expert synthesis of the diverse opinions expressed by the leaders of European air navigation service providers in the first ever Innovation Insight brought to you by Air Traffic Management magazine.

Innovation is not easy in a safety critical industry – particularly one as networked together as air traffic management. But innovation does now seem to be on the way – driven both by new technologies and new ways of doing business.

Read the Innovation Insight by downloading Issue 1, 2017

This innovation survey of the leadership within European air navigation service providers (ANSP) focussed on three key technical solutions: space-based Communications, Navigation and Surveillance (CNS), Air Traffic Flow Management (ATFM) and Remote Towers. To these we need to add other solutions being developed and hopefully deployed within the SESAR European ATM modernisation initiative; notably System Wide Information Management (SWIM) and Flight Object technology to understand that innovation is really in our grasp.

ATFM The survey respondents see flow management in Europe as being tied to the evolving role of Eurocontrol as the Network Manager. Everyone seems confident that the evolution of ATFM will enhance ATM. The issue is to bring together all the actors – airlines, ANSPs, airports – to make decisions that reduce delay and improve safety across the network by ensuring that capacity is delivered where it is needed. For HungaroControl this is a centralised function; for others there is a greater role at the regional and even national level. For all the focus is a collaborative effort in making the right decision. Time will tell if Eurocontrol’s role as neutral arbitrator is a necessary catalyst for Network Management to really add value.

Space Based CNS ICAO first considered satellite technology as an enabler for ATM in the early 1980s – a process that led directly to the FANS system and the use of Inmarsat satellite communications service to genuinely revolutionise the way oceanic ATM is performed. I will always be proud to have worked on the FANS system in its early days. In May 2000, the decision by the then President Bill Clinton to turn off ‘selective availability’ of the GPS system ensured it became the enabler of precise aircraft navigation – the other enabler of FANS. More recent investments in GNSS (for example EGNOS and Galileo in Europe) are now enabling Performance Based Navigation and step improvements in route and procedure design.

Currently, of course, Aireon is looking forward to supplying a global surveillance service based on space-based ADS-B enabled by transponders on the IridiumNext constellation. All three developments share a common trait: they are based on space segments that serve multiple purposes rather than being dedicated to aeronautical safety. The early days of GPS were traumatised by discussions on legal liability and trust in military systems owned by a friendly national government. Today, we have performance based regulations, risk based oversight and a detailed understanding of how service levels agreements can support provision of safety services by commercial operators. Hopefully, a good basis for the certification of the Aireon service.

Remote Towers I suspect that visitors to the World ATM Congress in Madrid cuold have been forgiven for thinking that Remote Towers were everywhere. But in the real world: lots of talk and lots of plans but only two airports – both in Sweden – receiving an air traffic service from a remote location. Oh, and there is a very interesting virtual contingency tower at Heathrow. Two issues abound: firstly, Remote Tower is genuinely excitingbecause it proves that airport ATC can be provided from a location that is not an expensive tower with good visibility of the entire airfield. Once you accept that you don’t need what the Americans call an ‘out the window’ view, you can really start to innovate on how the service is provided.

Secondly the business case is hard. This is because a positive business case requires several airports to share the cost of the Remote Centre and the solution for multiple airports from one control suite is not there yet. Further development and innovation is needed before Remote Tower really revolutionises ATC, but the survey responses particularly those of DFS and NATS suggest this is on the way. Where a large ANSP is able to centralise the provision of ATS for several airports, this clearly has the necessary economy of scale. And as NATS says, the focus should not just be on small airfields. As Heathrow demonstrates, the technology is able to support the biggest airports as well.

Air Traffic Management magazine proudly presents its first Innovation Insight, an examination of the key technology issues facing the European air traffic management industry.
We invited European industry leaders to share their business perspectives on innovation and technology diffusion to gain their insight into what factors will determine success when delivering the definitive improvement needed by the European air transport network.
Each of these leaders knows from first-hand experience how innovation happens and what conditions favour the sustainable deployment of new technology solutions.
They not only discuss the necessary requirements underpinning technology progress but also what needs to happen to build an enabling policy environment to support the diffusion of new technologies and services.
Read the Innovation Insight in the latest issue of Air Traffic Management magazine. Download Issue 1, 2017  

SWIM and Cyber Security SWIM is interesting because it highlights a specific risk of introducing new technology: cyber crime. ATM’s lack of progress in deploying modern network-based technologies has to a large extent protected it from endless attempts to disrupt commercial businesses by hacktivists – both criminal and terrorist – that seem to fill every news cycle. However, the respondents are rightly positive: SWIM is a key enabler of the future ATM and in particular the innovative services that will emerge from enabling integrated access to the data that underpins ATM. This is too important an opportunity to miss. ANSPs can build in cyber security solutions now from the start; they can cross-fertilise the existing safety culture to ensure a positive security culture and through adoption of appropriate legislation learn to trust that all other ANSPs – and other SWIM stakeholders – have done the same.

In fact, survey respondents were positive about the potential impact on innovation but recognised that changes to the way service is provided would lead to challenges to the existing business model.

A changing business

What airlines – the ANSPs’ customers – want is improved efficiency: operational and economic. Innovation, and new technology in particular, costs money. It has to be paid for through efficiency savings either to the cost of providing the service, or through improvements to the service but ideally to both. In Europe, the need to align the decision-making of the national ANSPs to ensure efficient deployment has often been a stumbling block for innovation. With the SESAR Deployment Manager fully operational – and let’s be honest the public funds – large scale deployment is looking more and more feasible – but that does not mean it will be easy.

Future Business Models New technologies do not necessarily map directly on to the existing business models. As the survey respondents point out, the scope of a deployment is fundamental to selecting an efficient business model. Some solutions can be deployed and operated locally within the existing business structures – but increasingly new technology will require deployment over a wide geographical area – potentially in a distributed but harmonised way like upgrading Flight Data Processors (FDPs) to make use of flight object technology or in a more centralised way like a new datalink.

Aireon is a fantastic example. Surveillance is currently an embedded service of the national ANSPs. Aireon is effectively a single provider to all ANSPs. But how does Aireon’s service fit in to the ANSP service and most importantly the safety case? But other examples will also exist: who is going to provide the enabling infrastructure for SWIM? Or the next generation of datalink?

In addition to geographical scope, the question of whether competition is required to drive innovation also exercises the minds of the survey respondents. For me, achieving efficiency gains requires a freedom to collaborate. It is not an issue of competition or indeed private ownership. How a State decides to organise its Air Navigation Services should remain a sovereign issue so long as the ANSP has the ability to adapt to changing circumstances including the ability to self-finance. If this is enabled by the creation of a competitive market or collaboration through an industrial partnership or just by a highly efficient and interoperable national ANSP, it does not matter so long as real efficiency is achieved.

The Regulator The regulator’s challenge is to be seen as an enabler of innovation and change not  as a barrier. This is a real challenge. Regulators need to understand the safety impacts of new technology and how they can be approved. The current focus of Remote Tower is to directly replicate the existing service because this is what the regulator understands. But the real benefits arrive when we go beyond the current paradigm and control multiple airports from one control suite.

This is a regulatory challenge. Further, as the IAA points out aircraft are certified once for the whole of Europe – so why not an FDP? The Regulator (be it EASA or the national aviation authorities) also need to approve and certify new forms of Service Provider in a manner that is consistent with the organisational role. ‘Performance Based Regulation’, ‘Risk Based Oversight’. Great mantras – but what does they mean in practice?

Then there is also the issue of economic regulation. Formally economic regulation acts as a proxy for competition where a contestable market cannot be established – as an Anglo-Saxon I have been programmed from birth to believe that competition is the best way of ensuring value for money. Although Europe does have a growing market for airport ATC services, it is not clear that this is scalable to en route services.

Competition at airports is enabled by the airport owning the infrastructure and procuring the service via an open tender. In en route airspace, the ANSP owns the infrastructure and is the de facto monopoly provider. Hence the SES Performance Scheme – price-setting on monopoly providers. Where genuine competition is introduced the challenge is to ensure that it is not hampered by additional economic regulation; but also where collaboration is used, the challenge is to find the right benchmarks that ensure the right level of efficiency gain is achieved. Essentially, the regulatory challenge is to keep up!

The Human Factor For all these technical and regulatory issues surrounding innovation one factor remains constant: the human operator has a central role in the provision of safe ATM. However, the various roles will need to adapt as the environment evolves so, as NATS points out, the human roles are exciting and interesting to the modern workforce. All the respondents recognise the need for a positive and holistic approach to change management that truly involves staff and enables ownership of the future.

Innovation and UTM

Reading the survey responses was a positive experience for me. Not because the ANSP leadership agreed on all points – they don’t – but because the overall impression was that the CEOs are thinking that innovation is the way forward. And whilst there are different views about the ‘how’ to achieve innovation, there is a consensus that collaboration is part of the process. So it is not surprising perhaps that there was also a consensus that ANSPs should play a role in providing a UTM service.

Now there isn’t really a full definition of UTM – unless you are American of course and accept the NASA definition. UTM is fundamentally a form – or forms – of ATM designed for Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs) operating in Very Low Level airspace – what the European Commission at least are calling ‘U-Space’. This is not airspace where manned aircraft are allowed to go; but UAV operators need to if they are to be allowed to perform the type of parcel delivery service envisaged by Amazon et al.

UTM could take many forms. It could be a geo-fencing and identification service for operators wanting to fly modest UAVs in public spaces that are not densely populated. It could be a ‘booking service’ to ensure that only one operator is present at a specific place and time. It could be a fully autonomous flight planning and collision avoidance system enabling swarms of UAVs to operate autonomously in an urban area – something I find reminiscent of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Free Flight programme that preceded NextGen.

The point is that UTM requires genuine innovation. The UAV marketplace is innovative. Manufacturers are constantly innovating in order to establish a competitive advantage. The size of organisations ranges from the very largest – able to throw huge amounts of money at problems – to genuine small and medium-sized businesses using agility and ingenuity to carve away ahead.

So whilst you have to agree that ANSPs have the right safety culture and natural authority to be the UTM provider, let’s not make that decision too quickly. For ATM we are where we are – a public service with fragmented national providers learning to be efficient more through collaboration rather than competition. The UAV market is different. UTM is an opportunity to see where real competition can lead us, perhaps even to new ways of doing ATC. Paul Ravenhill, director, Think Research

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