Controlled Landing: How Technology is Changing Air Traffic Control

The jet engine, an invention of World War II, was a welcome replacement for the old fashioned propeller planes and ushered in a new era of travel. However, while today’s passenger planes are a very different prospect from those that came immediately after the war – a substantially noisier and more uncomfortable affair – it is strange to think that in over 65 years’ of operations, air traffic control radio communication systems between controllers and pilots have remained broadly the same.

Currently, all air traffic controllers are beholden to a radar?based system (also pioneered during WWII) that, while safe, is prone to inefficiencies and delays. However, over the next few years this is all set to change. As the aerospace industry enters an age of connectivity, air traffic control is now looking to new software-based systems.

New Era, New Challenges

“For many, these changes can’t come quickly enough. The secondary surveillance radar based system working with transponders aboard aircrafts is struggling to meet today’s challenges, often losing lines of communication between non-cooperating aircrafts and the control tower or during difficult weather conditions (perhaps the times when reliable data are needed most urgently). Additionally, the introduction of unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) such as drones into civil air space has caused numerous problems – most crucially in the latency of the radar communication network slowing down instructions to the remote pilot, who could well be located in a distant country. “

Finally, with many citizens putting pressure on politicians to block the building of new airports and runways, air traffic controllers are forced to manage more traffic than ever before. Efficiency is becoming a growing concern as staff are placed under increasing pressure.

Introducing the Connected Craft

Against this backdrop, the industry has identified the ‘Connected Craft’ as a viable solution.

Firstly, connected crafts will be equipped with sensors that will continuously send data through satellites to the airline operators’ maintenance centers, helping to speed up the detection of potential component failures. Predictive maintenance services will help keep planes in the air longer, reduce the time taken for repairs and lower the costs for repairs.

Moreover, they will be able to communicate with other crafts, from manned military planes to UAVs. Automated exchange and communication between aircrafts will help in maintaining safe distances. Ultimately, it will help define new standards for an efficient, secure, safe and reliable interoperability between the different systems air-air and air-ground. Air traffic controllers will be able to rely on an added level of automation for route optimization, significantly increasing the number of airborne vehicles while allowing controllers to focus their attention on take-off and landing activities.

Data Driven Aircrafts

Big data will have a critical role to play. From analysis of flight patterns, airlines will be better able to comply with regulatory requirements such as the EU Clean Sky Program.

Operators will be informed in real-time of the performance and the efficiency of the engines, meaning that upgrades can be made at the best possible time. There will also be improvements in separation distances between planes, with data helping to refine trajectories to conserve fuel and limit emissions as well as better distribute sound waves, restricting noise across flight paths.

While the opportunities are clear, the connected craft presents some new challenges for air traffic controllers. With increased connectivity comes an increased attack surface, and cybersecurity is now very much an issue. Keeping air traffic control systems separate from on-board entertainment networks is a good start, but more must be done to isolate and protect the sensitive data being generated by connected crafts.

Furthermore, while data will play an important role for the industry, collecting, crunching and storing it will be a challenge. Analyzing this real-time information will require more compute power than ever before.

As our market view whitepaper shows, the future looks bright for air traffic control, but it’s imperative that the industry takes a clear view of the checks and balances that must be put into place before the connected craft can truly hit the mainstream.

Get it right, and it’ll plain sailing across clear skies; get it wrong and we could be in for a bumpy flight.

About Stephane Janichewski

Stéphane Janichewski graduated from Ecole Polytechnique, Ecole Nationale de Techniques Avancées (MS) and HEC (Executive MBA), and started his career working for the French Ministry of Defense (Direction Générale de l’Armement) as Program Manager for the French military satellite communications programme (Syracuse 2), and then as advisor to the Head of DGA in charge of nuclear, missile and space matters. Stéphane joined the French Space Agency (CNES) as Head of Strategy, Programs and International relationships and Associate Director General. He then moved to the private sector in 2009 inside the Capgemini Group, at first as French Ministry of Defense and European Space Account Director, then as Head of Global Cybersecurity Line at Sogeti. He joined Bull in 2014 and the Atos Group as of January 2015. He is currently Head of Defense & Aerospace Market.