EXCLUSIVE: AirSense Arrives

Airbus’ launch at this year’s Farnborough Air Show of AirSense to provide aircraft surveillance analytics through fusing Aireon’s space-based real-time ADS-B data is intriguing in its scope.
This capability which will provide the anchor for the European airframer’s SkyWise platform offers the potential of not only smarter operations at a time when all airlines need to demonstrate they are meeting the ICAO aircraft tracking mandate but also of far greater visibility over how the airspace is being managed.
Actionable intelligence will also doubtless allow airlines to take better operational decisions and achieve greater efficiency in terms of route optimisation
Airlines will soon have a tool where real-time global aircraft surveillance data will offer the ability to flight plan around problems, making the concept of ‘Free Flight’ a reality. Does that leap in situational awareness however mean that the airline ultimately takes on some of the responsibilities of an air navigation service provider?
And what will be the future role that Airbus’ platform will play as additional data feeds are progressively added such as ADS-B In technology which represent the core enabler for aircraft-centric separation? Does the development of such a platform signal a return to Airbus staking its claim as an ‘ANSP of the sky’?
Aimée Turner was granted exclusive access to Evert Dudok, executive vice president Airbus Defence and Space, and Aireon chief executive Don Thoma together with their respective teams at this year’s Farnborough Air Show to discuss what AirSense will mean for the aviation community.
ATM What is AirSense and how does Aireon fit into that?
Evert Dudok For Airbus it is vital for us to know where all aircraft around the world are. The subject of safety, it is our brand and this co-operation with Aireon will allow us to get more aircraft flying safely in the sky. It is fair to say that today over the North Atlantic we remain limited only by reliable tracking information.
Where AirSense is attempting to differentiate itself is to provide a source of reliable tracking data with high level of accuracy so we can take operational decisions based on it.
Over time we hope it will provide better information on overcrowded routes and in parallel, of course, we are looking at many applications which will improve airport and airline operations, preventing holding patterns and improving the passenger’s experience. Through this, we hope to have arrival flows without friction.
There have been two elements that were missing until today: global data which is where the partnership with Aireon comes in and the other was the issue of reliability because that is fundamental to fusing different data sources linked to accurate tracking data.
Skywise is the Airbus platform and AirSense with Aireon as the data feed  will be fused with other data to provide services to our airline customers.
Over time, Airbus will start adding sensors in its aircraft to be able to provide the ability to know the position of surrounding aircraft, for example. It’s essentially about getting all the data sources that we can to make sure we capture everything while providing reliability through accurate data.
It is in development – it started small and now we are adding partners and Aireon is a vital element in that.
ATM How big a coup is this for Aireon?
Don Thoma This is a very important development. We have talked quite a bit about how we are developing the system and its primary purpose for it being to provide a safety, mission critical service that functions on a global level to be used by air traffic control. We have developed the system to really deliver a very high degree of reliability, integrity and redundancy to support safety-oriented services.
What the partnership with Airbus does really is takes it to another level, a different level because what Skywise and AirSense offers is insight. It takes Aireon’s highly reliable global data and ties that in with what Airbus has in terms of its broad overview of all the different partner stakeholders: a powerful leveraging component that when analysed can provide insights which can really make an impact.
ATM How long did it take Airbus to become convinced that Aireon provided the right solution?
Evert Dudok Aireon is the only source of such global data today and as Airbus has a similar global presence and one that values safety above all else, it probably took us one and a half years from the first meeting. The relationship went from there and, of course, the satellite constellation is deploying very well.
ATM Could there soon be a blurring of the lines between traditional air navigation service providers and what AirSense will be able to offer?
Evert Dudok It should be able to help – I don’t want to say revolutionise – air traffic management. Knowing reliably where all the aircraft in the world are at any given time provides the basis of optimisation. Uncertainty over where aircraft are prevents us achieving better efficiency.
By doing this we can offer a service that helps Airbus and ATM but it is not going to blur any lines. What we are doing is offering reliable data but we will never take decisions beyond that.
Cyriel Konenburg – vice president, aviation, at Aireon. At the end of the day this type of data and the capability that Airbus will be able to provide enhances the ability to do Collaborative Decision Making (CDM).
If an airline has the same view as the ATM provider and aircraft manufacturer and the same understanding of what happened yesterday, the day before and the day before that, you can start predicting how accurate your plan is as opposed to what is actually happening on the day.
Today, CDM is well developed but we are not there yet and this will enable a real step change.
Carina Schnitzenbaumer, project lead ADS-B Digital, Airbus. On the one hand we have unique real time data and on the other we combine it with the Airbus assets which are the main expertise on various stakeholder groups – serving airlines, air traffic management and also serving airports with various solutions we have in-house with Skywise being the delivery service platform.
Don Thoma Does it blur the lines? I think actually it clarifies them. The common awareness of the picture based on real-time robust data provides that insight and this is what the partnership is really all about.
We’ve heard a lot about big data analytics in ATM and in the broader aviation marketplace and what this shows is that Airbus is making an investment in this area to bring this capability not only to one stakeholder or subgroup but to the whole community. From an Aireon perspective this is what will unlock the potential of a global dataset.
ATM Does Airbus have to have its own ‘pipeline’ to deliver these services in a real-time dimension?
Evert Dudok It is difficult to predict the direction in which Airbus will go over the next three or four years and it is not my role to comment on that. All I would say is that Airbus is definitely a business that looks at partnerships. Certain things we will want to do ourselves and in other things we will examine the potential for partnerships.
Read: Airbus eyes airports, ATM as revenue generator