European pilots will be able to fold away their maps and free up their radio frequency in favour of more advanced technologies to communicate their trajectories with air traffic control, said Florian Guillermet, the executive director of the SESAR Joint Undertaking. These are just some of the ways in which SESAR, a public-private R&D partnership, is contributing to Europe’s goal of modernising its air traffic management (ATM) system and joining up its fragmented skies.
Why does air traffic management need to be modernised?
‘Air traffic management is a key element in the air transport value chain and is primarily delivered by ground-based controllers who direct aircraft on the ground and in the air. Their primary tasks are to prevent collisions, organise and expedite the flow of traffic – and basically to be the eyes, ears and guides of pilots, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This system has worked in the last decades. But ageing technology, together with growing traffic and environmental concerns, call for a fundamental change to how air traffic is managed, both in the sky and on the ground.’
So what is SESAR’s job in this modernisation effort?
‘Our job is to develop solutions that will improve the operational effectiveness, cost efficiency and environmental footprint of air traffic management, all the while maintaining the highest standards of safety. To guide us in our job, we rely on the European ATM Master Plan, which is a roadmap that clearly sets out the operational and technological changes that need to take place in order to modernise Europe’s ATM system. This networked or net-centric view of the system is, I think, very important as experience has shown us that you cannot bring about significant changes if you try to fix areas of the system in isolation of one another. And that is why the public-private partnership is such an important factor in SESAR’s success – it brings together the entire ATM community, from air navigation service providers and airports, to the manufacturers of air and ground infrastructure, and associations representing the ATM workforce like air traffic controllers, technicians and pilots. Their knowledge and expertise is the motor that drives our programme forward.’
Can you give an example of some of the technological or operational advancements you are developing?
‘Our job is to develop solutions that will improve the operational effectiveness, cost efficiency and environmental footprint of air traffic management.’
Florian Guillermet, executive director, SESAR
‘Today, essentially, the connection between the aircraft and the ground system is via voice communications, through surveillance of the aircraft with radar information. It can tell us the position and the direction of the aircraft, but you have no idea of the future trajectory of the aircraft, for instance. One key element of what we do at SESAR is to fully integrate the aircraft into the system so that there is a constant exchange of information between the ground system and the cockpit. This is known as initial four dimension trajectory management (i4D). Essentially i4D allows a better prediction and execution of aircraft trajectories, meaning the controller no longer has to assume that the aircraft will follow a certain path but instead actually knows its trajectory. Our latest flight trials show that the sharing of trajectory information between the air and ground can enable a safer and more efficient handling of flight profiles. Controllers can clearly see on their screens expected ground and airborne trajectories, which allows them to resolve discrepancies where necessary and anticipate the flight path with greater precision. On the airborne side, the aircraft can better manage their speed profile, which leads to fuel savings and an environmentally optimised flight profile.
‘This also means addressing the way in which different systems interact in Europe. Different countries in Europe have, for historical reasons, developed their own air traffic management systems and when an aircraft crosses Europe’s or a European state’s boundaries it has to switch systems. The idea is not to have the same system for all European states, but to have systems that are fully interoperable that can exchange information seamlessly. If we take an example of a flight from Madrid to Stockholm, when the flight is in France and the controller decides for safety reasons to put the aircraft on another route, the whole chain would be informed immediately and the controller in the upper airspace of the Netherlands has the information that his flight will be arriving on another route at a different time to the initial flight plan.’
You would imagine that this type of information exchange already exists.
‘Information exchange does exist, but often it is between particular sets of stakeholders rather than the entire network. At SESAR, we are developing the concept of system wide information management, in order to provide information at the right time to the right stakeholder. In the ATM network, almost every stakeholder is a producer as well as a consumer of information. It is not ideal to decide in advance who will need what information, obtained from whom and when. The key issue is to decouple producers of information from the possible consumers in such a way that the number and nature of the consumers can evolve through time. Part of making this change happen, is by making this information virtual. Up to a couple of years ago, believe it or not, in aircrafts it was still the norm to consult maps and books to get information on the routes which were open and closed. So we are making a big effort to ensure this information is digitalised and made available through web services and applications.’
What are the research priorities for the next SESAR programme (SESAR 2020)?
‘The 2020 programme will research and develop several key components within the ATM system and then demonstrate on a very large scale how our solutions can bring significant performance benefits to the different stakeholders in the ATM community. These selected components address the entire system, from the aircraft and airports, to airspace management and services and network service performance.
‘Under the current programme, which will end in 2016, and SESAR 2020, we will also address new challenges such as cybersecurity. Today you have a system which is quite fragmented and based on point-to-point communication, so any exposure to threats today can be localised without having an impact on the whole system. Of course, when you increase the interconnection and start to use more standard protocols to exchange information, and in addition build in automation, you have to be prepared to tackle and handle all sorts of information security scenarios.
‘Another element which the current programme has started and will further investigate in SESAR 2020 is the safe integration of civil remotely piloted aircraft into the air traffic management system. Remotely piloted aircraft, which are used today for railroad and coast guard surveillance activities for example, can benefit citizens when their use is properly framed in terms of rights and obligations, but they need to be progressively and safely integrated into the SESAR air traffic management system. Our job is to define the essential R&D activities that will enable this safe integration.’
You’ve been in the executive director job a short time, what are your priorities?
‘There is a lot to do but if I was to sum up, I see two main priorities. The first is to bring the research and innovation activities from the first SESAR programme to completion, delivering solutions that are attractive performance-wise and mature enough for industry to deploy. The second is to prepare for the SESAR 2020 programme, which will focus on key components in the ATM system that can bring clear benefits and make the difference. This will involve a renewal of the current SESAR membership, with existing and new members that will be working together on research and innovation in close coordination with the future SESAR deployment manager. In a nutshell, we have to ensure that our research remains responsive to the changing business needs of industry and that our solutions continue to be viable for deployment. The stakes are really high since the ATM system is a key element and influential factor for the competitiveness of the European aviation industry and ultimately for the success of the Single European Sky initiative.’
The Single European Sky Air Traffic Management Research (SESAR) programme is one of seven Joint Technology Initiatives set up by the European Union to fund research by combining public and private financing.
SESAR is the technology pillar of the Single European Sky, an EU initiative to link up all of Europe’s air traffic zones. The programme aims to produce the technological advancements needed to achieve the Single European Sky.
The extended SESAR programme (SESAR 2020) is due to begin operations in 2015. The programme is coordinated by the SESAR Joint Undertaking, which is co-founded by the European Union and Eurocontrol and has the following fifteen industry members: AENA, Airbus, Alenia Aermacchi, DFS, DSNA, ENAV, Frequentis, Honeywell, Indra, NATMIG, NATS (En Route) Limited, NORACON, SEAC, Selex ES and Thales.
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