Technological teammates: Shaping the Future of Air Traffic Control
By necessity, the Air Traffic Control (ATC) industry stays at the cutting edge of aviation technology, as it is the essential enabler of safe journeys for the billions of people who fly every year. An estimated 4.3 billion people took flights in 2018, and that figure is predicted to double to over 8 billion per year within the next two decades. This will mean a lot more flights, and therefore a lot more pressure on the ATC industry to keep pace with demand.
Instead of merely throwing more of the same resources at the growing challenge, ATC organisations will continue to adopt the latest technological tools and trends in order to give them the capabilities required to manage their growing daily workload. While not exhaustive, the following sections detail many of the most important tech assets that the industry will make increasing use of in the near future.
Remote and Virtual Towers (RVTs)
Even with the complexity of ATC operations, the service itself doesn’t necessarily have to be delivered on-site at the airport itself. While active RVTs are small in number and early on in their development journey, they represent a significant cost saving as they can coordinate the operations of several airports all in one central location.
In 2018, a widening range of RVT providers have been demonstrating what their approach to control towers can offer, not just in terms of cost efficiency but also overall security and safety levels. For example, Dubai International Airport’s (DXB) contingency control centre was built and implemented according to a range of companies including RVT provider HungaroControl, whose concept revolves around delivering complete situational awareness by integrating existing ground surveillance system with a network of distributed cameras.
Drone detection and safety protocols
Following the Gatwick drone incident of Christmas 2018, where a nearby drone caused a 48-closure of the airport and disrupted the flights of over 120,000 people during the busy holiday season, far closer attention is being paid to drone safety from an ATC perspective. Going forward, part of the business of keeping flights safe will be blocking any potential drone-based disruption – malign or accidental.
The direction and makeup of the necessary anti-drone measures will no doubt be influenced by the emergence of more concrete regulatory proposals regarding drones in commercial airport airspaces. However, already there are providers offering novel solutions to the problem, such as signal-jamming technology, strategic quadcopters and even ‘anti-drone’ drones.
Improving communications through 4G-LTE
When air-to-ground communications between planes and the tower isn’t possible, such as on long-distance trans-oceanic flights, satellites have filled the gap. However, 4G-LTE services provide a cheaper alternative with a variety of compelling bonuses. By creating a single, unified ultra-broadband radio network, ATC authorities can remain in immediate contact with both flight crews and ground staff, streamlining operations that utilise real-time information to ensure the safety and efficiency of all flights.
In terms of added benefits, 4G-LTE networks also allow for the proliferation of affordable WiFi services to all passengers. In its recent presentations, telecoms firm Nokia has pointed out that the majority of flights (87% of US flights, in fact) don’t offer on-board WiFi services to their passengers, while 80% of polled passengers would make use of WiFi, if it were available to them.
Upgraded display, data visualisation and control features for ATC operational equipment
ATCOs (Air Traffic Control Officers) deal with masses of vital and rapidly updating data during every moment of their work. In order to help them make fast and accurate handling of every scenario as it unfolds, they need the ability to visualise, sort, manage and act on said data in the manner most effective and conducive to their individual working style.
For this reason, we can expect to see further evolution of ATCOs’ equipment. Examples of this include ‘mixed reality’ setups, which allow for personalised strategic overlays of various data sources, including real-time flight information, meteorology, virtual monitors and external camera feeds. ATCO monitors can be further enhanced with OPS+ KVM extenders (short for Open Pluggable Specification and Keyboard, Video, Monitor respectively) as providers like IHSE have managed with their latest Draco model:
“Modern smart display applications – for example huddle space and high-end signage applications – require real-time interaction and the best image display. This is only possible through the integration of transparent USB and the provision of a delay-free return channel. So we combine interactive touchscreens with the classic advantages of KVM such as flexible computer access and system security.” – IHSE press release
Integrated ATC communications solutions
With hundreds of airlines, various air authorities and other organisations all involved in the routine operations of ATC, it’s essential that lines of communication remain stable, secure and effective. Innovations continue to push the technological boundaries of communications equipment, such as Rohde & Schwarz’s development of the world's first ATC radios with the ability to detect simultaneous transmissions.
Greater Automation of data collation and routine operations
As with a wide range of industries, automation is not a new concept for ATC. Autopilot programmes, on-board datalink systems and other automated features have been in place for decades. However, automation is becoming increasingly vital to the safety and efficiency of ATC operations, as advanced solutions demonstrate their capacity to take on more complex and intensive workloads, aiding human ATCOs in a number of ways.
Firstly, sophisticated automated solutions can enhance controllers’ visibility by creating the most appropriate visual overlays and screening out redundant information. Also, thanks to the introduction of remote towers, automation is literally improving their field of vision by collating data from cameras set up miles away into a single centralised view.
Automation is also taking on more sophisticated pathfinding and ordering protocols. For example, instead of having ground staff guide planes as they taxi into their allotted gate, automated systems can designate the most efficient route while eliminating the potential for human error, which is higher at night due to tiredness and lower visibility.
Smarter analysis of the skies: Technology allows for a more complete view
Each of these technologies represent an important step forward towards achieving a completely holistic overview of our airspaces. Individually, they are incremental improvements, allowing ATCOs to see further, understand circumstances better, think quicker and ultimately, act faster. In the case of automation, they can even help human controllers concentrate on the more strategic elements of their role by shouldering the burden of the more routine tasks.
However, when combined, these innovations represent the industry’s rapid evolution into the next generation of ATC operations. As an ideology, the wholesale technological improvement of the ATC ecosystem is enabling significant and ongoing benefits in terms of heightened security, greater safety and lower operational costs.
Don’t miss the opportunity to see the likes of HungaroControl, Nokia, and IHSE presenting their cutting-edge solutions this April.