European lawmakers are mulling a European Upper Flight Information Region or EUIR to support their ultimate vision of a trans-European motorway in the sky.
The SESAR Joint Undertaking (SJU) has been tasked by the European Commission to conduct an airspace architecture study to ensure that this vision remains consistent with both Single Sky and ATM Master Plan objectives.
Air Traffic Management’s Aimée Turner met with SJU chief Florian Guillermet to discuss what factors could determine Europe’s airspace architecture before 2035.
ATM Can you talk more about how the airspace architecture study is being prepared and what is its rationale? There has been a lot of talk about the creation of an EUIR reducing the impact of industrial action in some critical airspace regions in Europe. Was that political imperative the underlying rationale behind decision to launch the study?
FG There are several rationales behind the study, some of course political. But the reason why we have been mandated to tackle this is that essentially today we’re missing a stronger connection between what technology can offer, what has been developed in the context of SESAR and how this architecture can be operated. Essentially, we have a performance-driven approach and while we have a list of technology enablers that make sense in relation to performance, there’s still no glue holding the two together in terms of how the system is going to eventually operate and during its transition. This is what we’d like to bring to the study – to outline options that are not prescriptive but to give predictability of and guidance as to how things will be shaped in the future. By integrating the findings of the study into the European ATM Master Plan, in addition to other elements such as the drone integration roadmap, it will provide a baseline for further consideration by the legislator.
ATM What is the timescale for completion?
FG The study should be completed towards the end of the year. We are holding a number of consultation workshops with all stakeholders represented. The study aims to answer a clear problem statement and analyse the following: ‘we have a number of technology solutions – building blocks – how do we see them being operated and organised to the level of performance required knowing the traffic forecasts at hand?’.
The idea is to look at the long term trend because we need to pitch the time horizon at 2035-2040 to match it to the Master Plan and the ICAO Global Air Navigation Plan as well. This also covers the necessary transitional steps and takes into account the traffic evolution as it is forecast – not just in terms of numbers but also in terms of traffic flows across Europe. That is why the study is being conducted in full co-operation with the Network Manager, as well as in consultation with the European stakeholders at large.
ATM Will it be purely a technology driven approach?
FG We have an established an overarching SESAR Concept of Operations, which is well aligned to and supporting the ICAO Global ATM Operational Concept. The idea is to maintain an operational and performance-driven approach, analysing how to best use technologies in order to optimise airspace as an asset, as well as the operational resources that manage traffic and traffic flows. In this respect, it is a given that cross-border operations need to be seamless requiring more flexible capacity management in the airspace.
It is definitely not about reinventing the wheel – we will build on what has been developed, agreed and what is in the pipeline in terms of SESAR Solutions. Our research and development is ongoing in several key areas and we will of course take this work into account and extrapolate it in order that we continue to see the big picture, such as the attributes of the airspace, capacity, resilience and other related elements.
ATM So does this represent the first really fresh look at what technology could in the future deliver in terms of solving the problems of capacity and issues which have an effect on the network such as airspace sovereignty?
FG This offers us a sort of a blank page on which we can define attributes that can be supported by technology. But it’s also an opportunity for us to see if the notion behind EUIR can be exploited in different ways. If you to try exploit it in a formal way – at ICAO type level – it’s unlikely to work since no state is ready to give up their airspace. The notion is interesting since it prompts us to think about the kind of attributes that we want for European airspace knowing that we need to ensure safety and continuity in air transport.
We are seeing a growing trend in partnerships like Borealis and COOPANS of working along flows of traffic and of air navigation service providers (ANSP) organising themselves according to them. We also see in concrete terms in SESAR, for instance on arrival management, where ANSPs are clearly and collectively operating to the benefit of each other, of airports, and along the principle of traffic flows. This is something we need to encourage and to incentivise in the system.
ATM The world of ATM has changed radically since the SESAR JU was launched so how do you plan to keep your proposals for a new architecture dynamic? Remote towers and drone technology were novelties three or four years ago and now they’re fast becoming mainstream.
FG If I reset the clock and go back 10 years ago when SESAR was launched as a partnership, there are some elements that are now obsolete, but many remain valid among which is the scalability of the system.
SESAR was launched because the system was fragmented and basically unable to cope with more traffic without applying more resources. This was the equation SESAR had to break – 10 per cent more traffic could not mean 10 per cent more resources into the system – with drones now added into the mix, that makes the objective even more important. This is something we have to take into account because although traffic over the last 10 years has stagnated a little, it is now picking up. So to have any new entrants will mean the system as it is today simply will not be able to cope.
This is where automation will come in. In the initial SESAR concept, the focus was on developing support tools for the controller and the pilot. That is now changing as we seek to better embed automation into the system. So, while the SESAR has sharpened its vision to become more future-proof, the objective remains more important than ever before.
ATM The future architecture will arguably have to take into account ultra-high altitude and space operations. Will the SESAR JU factor those in too?
FG For me, it is all part of the same story. We are facing a new era of aviation and I think all those operations – balloons, high altitude operations, drones, etc – underline the fact that there has and will always be an appetite to access the airspace and ATM services for all sort of reasons.
This is going to put pressure on the system and I think we need to tackle it as a whole – we cannot design a system just based on supporting commercial air transport. We have to design a system that can support any kind of application or operation in the sky. We still have to apply use-cases to keep our feet firmly and safely on the ground, however.
The space and very high-altitude applications are not so clear at the moment as to their needs and performance, as well as to how this might translate into concrete example projects so we need people to come and explain to us where, how and when they wish to use the airspace. Until then, it requires more in-depth studies but foremost a dialogue about these operations.
Those sorts of applications are manageable through a degree of accommodation versus integration. If they then become repetitive and if they add significantly to the traffic, that is another story. I do see that happening quite clearly for drones but for space or for very high-altitude operations, that is still quite scattered and still manageable with techniques that we can apply today.
A use-case makes it very visible. This is the difference with drone technology. They come with new ideas and propose new services and applications that we will never have in traditional commercial aviation – or at least not at this scale. Aero photography, for example, has always existed and has always been accommodated by the system. However, if you multiply that demand by a factor of one hundred, the system cannot cope.