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Making air travel safer

The results of a four-year-research effort to develop future safety information systems for aircraft were released at an event in Amsterdam on 25th and 26th March.

Stafff at the NLR demonstrate new information systems being developed during the FYSAFE project © Neil Maclean
A demonstration of the FLYSAFE air traffic control system under development
© Neil Maclean

Over 100 delegates gathered at the Dutch National Aerospace Laboratory (NLR) for the final forum of the EU-funded FLYSAFE project to discuss the research and see simulations of the new technology. The event also attracted the interest of the mainstream media, with national TV news dubbing the systems under development a “Tom Tom for pilots”, after the popular GPS system for passenger cars.

The project was set up to improve the safety of air travel by providing crews with better information on the three most common external threats for aircraft – weather conditions, traffic collision and terrain collision. FLYSAFE looked at the design, development, implementation, testing and validation of a ‘Next Generation Integrated Surveillance System’ (NG ISS).

A key development is a Weather Information Management Systems (WIMS) to gather much more detailed and accurate information on upcoming weather conditions than current systems. This means pilots will be better warned about potentially dangerous situations such as Clear Air Turbulence (CAT), thunderstorms and icing – conditions which current aircraft weather radar cannot always detect.

Fred Abbink, the general director of the NLR, said, “FLYSAFE will definitely help to improve the safety and environmental credentials of air travel. A project like this brings people and organisations together to do things we couldn’t do on our own.”

Marc Fabreguettes from Thales Group addressing the FLYSAFE final forum in Amsterdam, March 2009 © Neil Maclean
Marc Fabreguettes from Thales Group
© Neil Maclean

The project involved a consortium of 36 organisations from 14 countries, including international companies, research institutions and SMEs. Marc Fabreguettes, from co-ordinators Thales, said they had successfully met all the project’s objectives and highlighted the good relations between all partners and the European institutions.

“The technology we are developing will be found in the next generation of cockpits,” he said. “Our concepts will be finding their way slowly into mainstream applications.” Fabreguettes urged other research projects to carry forward their work, stressing that the results of FLYSAFE would be made available. “Further work has to be done on the WIMs to implement them,” he said. One area that needed careful consideration, he added, is the relationship between aircraft and air traffic controllers.

FLYSAFE was launched in February 2005 under the European Commission’s Sixth Research and Development Framework Programme (FP6), and is guided by the Advisory Council for Aeronautics Research in Europe (ACARE).

Specific aims include:

  • The definition of a human-machine interface, presenting in an integrated way, and in real time, potential risks during a flight
  • Precise onboard visualisation of other aircraft, as well as terrain and obstacle presentations during every flight phase
  • Presentation of more precise information on atmospheric disturbances, including thunderstorms, icing conditions, clear air turbulences, wake vortices and volcanic ash
  • Better information for pilots on the flying environment, without increasing their workload

There were three main phases of the project. Initially, national meteorological institutes and independent research centres developed new ground-based systems to provide detailed atmospheric information covering continental, regional and local conditions. After that a common platform bringing together all new elements was assembled in Toulouse. The final phase involved testing, firstly in a simulator at NLR, and then in test flights.

FLYSAFE has a total budget of €53 million, with €29 million being provided by the European Commission.

Future developments

Stéphanie Stoltz-Douchet from the European Commission said that the project made an important contribution to the EU's ambitious objectives on improving the safety of flying.

“FLYSAFE directly addresses safety, but has also given some interesting solutions for other objectives of aviation research, such as predictability and punctuality of air transport.” she said. “It will help to better cope with unfavourable conditions – such as weather or infrastructure saturation, which today are at the root of a high number of flight delays.”

She underlined how the results of FLYSAFE will contribute to on-going research under the current generation of EU-funded projects under the Seventh Framework Programme for Research (FP7). “I'm convinced that today's new research projects will be able to take advantage of what has been achieved with FLYSAFE.”

Peter Hecker, an expert from industry who sat on the European Commission's review panel, said their team was pleased with the results of the project. A major achievement, he added, was in bringing together the different aspects together in one large-scale project. “Integrating the individual functions together is the real achievement of FLYSAFE. There is a very complex interaction between the elements. And a series of individual projects couldn't have done this.”

He pointed out areas addressed by FLYSAFE that needed further efforts such as air-ground integration, how to combine the information for the pilot and display it most effectively. “We need to combine the right level of information and how to display it.” He also pointed out that issues over standardisation and certification needed to be addressed.

“The individual findings need to be translated into products,” he added. “It is now important to transfer the results and knowledge to other programmes. FP7 projects should build on this work.”

User perspective

A pilot demonstrates FLYSAFE information systems in a flight simulator © Neil Maclean
A pilot demonstrates FLYSAFE information systems in a flight simulator
© Neil Maclean

Wim Huson, an experimental test pilot and chair of the External Expert Advisory Group (EEAG), praised the fact that the project had involved, from the start, the people who were going to use the systems – i.e. pilots and air traffic controllers. “Although it was focused on developing the technology, it is really important to bear in mind the end users.”

However, he warned: “There's a danger of overload. The technology being developed now allows us to present much more information to pilots. But presenting it all at the same time is not a good idea.” Other representatives of pilots and other stakeholders agreed. “More is not always better. It must be smarter,” said Wilfred Rouwhorst from the NLR.

With only some testing and final analysis and administration still remaining, the project should be completed in the coming months. A final project event is scheduled for June.

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