Researchers set sights on overhauling air traffic communication across Europe
Making skies safe for travellers is a key objective of Europeans. In order to do this, communication systems that are up to 50 years old must be replaced. The information which nowadays traffic controllers and pilots exchange, mainly verbally, will be upgraded with automated data available for more people in a new air traffic security internet. A European team of researchers is currently working on restructuring air traffic across the region to meet the challenges head on. The SECOMAS ('Spectrum efficient communication for future aeronautical services') is part of the European initiative's technological and operational dimension called SESAR ('Single European sky ATM research'), which is funded in part by the European Commission with a whopping EUR 700 million. Industry and Eurocontrol, the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation made up of 39 member states and the European Community, support SESAR with another EUR 2.1 billion.
'Current communication systems have been in use since the 1960s and 1970s,' says Jan Erik Håkegård of the Norwegian research institution SINTEF, project leader of SECOMAS. 'They will not be able to deal with the pressing need for greater capacity.' SECOMAS is targeting the development of new air traffic communication technology.
Current systems oblige pilots and air traffic controllers to communicate verbally. But this new technology would generate digitalised information, giving multiple user groups like ground crews access to information.
'In the future, information will be largely digital and stored in an Internet 'cloud', and communication will function like an intranet,' explains Dr Håkegård. 'Travellers will probably not notice the changes much which is exactly what we intend. Passengers may even see prices drop a bit, and find that their journeys take less time overall, but by and large these factors won't have a major impact on their experience. By contrast, if we didn't carry out this upgrade, they would really feel it — the increased flight activity would mean sky-high prices and a large number of delays.'
Switching to digital services is a wide-ranging effort with strict requirements governing the new communication technology, according to the researchers.
'A set of digital services for pilots has already been developed,' Dr Håkegård says. 'The system will give them information about the status of their aircraft, the location of other aircraft, what kind of weather to expect, and where they can fly to increase air traffic efficiency.'
The upshot is that shorter flight times, fewer delays and a better flow of information between airline and airport personnel will result.
Boosting efficiency and expanding capacity are also important for Europe. By reorganising all aviation traffic across national borders, both efficiency and capacity would increase. Making the necessary changes to the structure would enable aviation experts to deal with future air traffic, safety and environmental issues.
'Europe’s airspace is very fragmented today,' Dr Håkegård points out. 'Once we implement integrated management, we will have greater control over flight activities and be able to fly more direct routes more often than what is currently possible.'
This sophisticated technology will be mass produced and gradually installed in two years' time.