Why does European aviation need a digital overhaul?
Aviation provides enormous benefits to Europe’s citizens and the economy by enabling freedom of movement, travel, and trade within Europe and beyond. But those benefits are at risk partly because the infrastructure, in particular air traffic management (ATM) that underpins aviation, has hit its capacity limits, resulting in growing delays and unnecessary emissions. Forecasts show that air traffic is growing over the next years, as is the number and diversity of air vehicles seeking access to the airspace.
The current infrastructure is not equipped to handle this. In addition, the COVID pandemic has exposed the limitations of air traffic management in terms of its resilience and ability to adapt to disruptions. As we now face a growing climate crisis, the need for action is as clear as it is urgent. We are confident that through innovation we can deliver a Digital European Sky that supports smarter, more sustainable, connected, and accessible air transport for all.
The COVID pandemic has exposed the limitations of air traffic management in terms of its resilience and ability to adapt to disruptions
How exactly will technology bring about this transformation?
Air traffic management is a 24/7 business that must operate whatever the traffic and conditions. The system is designed to ensure safety. With advances in technology, we can make a progressive yet fundamental shift from today’s bespoke and physically based systems, towards more modular, service-oriented applications, enabling greater data exchange and connectivity between air traffic control centres, airports, and other actors in the transport system. In support of the EU’s ‘Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy' and the ‘Europe fit for the digital age’ initiative, we are investigating multiple technology pathways, from satellite technologies, supported by EGNOS/Galileo, and virtualisation, to artificial intelligence and augmented reality. For example, today’s air traffic management remains by and large manual, relying on controllers to ensure the safe separation of traffic. However, with its repetitive tasks generating huge amounts of data, ATM is an ideal candidate for greater automation. Our research projects are designing applications that use machine learning and big data to analyse traffic patterns, to better predict trends and disruptions and propose more efficient routes, freeing up controllers to focus on safety-critical tasks or handle more complex traffic situations.
What does it mean for the environment?
A move to sustainable aviation fuel sources is undoubtedly where the aviation sector will be able to make the largest inroad into decarbonising its operations, but it is not the only area where efficiencies can be made.
Matching the ambitions of the European Green Deal, our research and innovation is showing how emissions savings, albeit smaller, can be achieved in the shorter term by introducing new technologies and procedures into air traffic management. For instance, even before it takes off, a taxiing aircraft has already burned an estimated 200 Kg of jet fuel resulting in 600 Kg of CO2 emissions. We are investigating new greener taxiing techniques that could reduce aircraft fuel consumption on the ground by between 50 per cent and 85 per cent.
We are also researching the use of satellite-based technologies to reduce the carbon footprint of oceanic flights and aircraft arriving into airports. CO2 is not the only area of concern; evidence suggests that aviation’s non-CO2 emissions are in fact having a greater impact on the climate. Research shows that rerouting aircraft around climate-sensitive areas can reduce the warming effect of these emissions dramatically, so we are looking at models and applications that can support such operations.
How important is collaboration to the delivering on the vision you have set out?
Collaboration is the linchpin. No one organisation or country can bring about this digital transformation . It requires close cooperation between all stakeholders that contribute to ATM , from the European and national decision-makers that regulate it, the organisations and staff that operate it, to the academic and industry stakeholders that research, design and manufacture it.
With the establishment last year of the SESAR 3 Joint Undertaking, an institutional European public-private partnership that is strongly linked to policy and regulation, we have the means to coordinate all the stakeholders, pooling the critical mass of resources and expertise needed to deliver the Digital European Sky. Compared to our predecessor, our membership is bigger and broader reflecting the diversity of today’s aviation landscape but also signalling the growing will of stakeholders to join forces to deliver change.
When should we expect to see some results?
We have already delivered more than 100 SESAR solutions, many of them are in deployment. They bring benefits to the aviation sector in Europe in terms of safety, capacity, efficiency, and environment. The SESAR 3 JU will invest another €1.6 billion in new research projects.
The new structure of our research and innovation programme means that we can deliver solutions much sooner. Considering the urgency of the situation, our aim is to accelerate the digital transformation so our focus initially will be showing at scale, through very large-scale demonstrators, the benefits of several quick wins already available for deployment and engaging with stakeholders to get moving on their implementation.
The SESAR 3 Joint Undertaking (SESAR 3 JU) was established as a European public-private partnership in 2021 and brings together more than 50 founding members, in addition to the European Union (represented by the European Commission) and Eurocontrol. In July 2022, Andreas Boschen started his mandate as Executive Director of the SESAR 3 JU.