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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Wheels Up For SESAR

With 29 validation projects planned this year, the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) program strives for timely, tangible results

George Marsh

In Europe, the future shape of air-traffic management (ATM) is becoming visible today. All over the extended continent, aircraft operators are seeing temporal, financial and environmental benefits from trials of controlled descent approaches, 4D trajectories, datalink communications, precision navigation, enhanced surveillance and other new procedures and technologies.

This progress is a result of Europe’s Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) program and shows that, to coin a phrase, SESAR is now airborne and climbing. After a four-year Definition phase during which a Master Plan was created, the program’s Development phase commenced in 2009 and is well under way.

Officials of the SESAR Joint Undertaking (SJU), the public/private partnership that is managing this second of three phases, are clear that SESAR, one of Europe’s most ambitious research and development programs, is yielding tangible results. A basketful of benefits will, they say, become available to aviation stakeholders from now on and particularly during the program’s third and final phase, Implementation, which will succeed the Development phase from 2016.

The Development phase is the technological and operational pillar of SESAR, intended to carry out all further R&D activity required to field an ATM system worthy of the 21st century. A collaborative partnership was formed to lead it in order to achieve maximum “buy-in” from stakeholders, including the various Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs), aircraft operators, aircraft manufacturers, the military, government agencies and supplier companies.

The SJU is coordinating nearly 300 projects within 16 work packages that form the overall R&D commitment. According to Peter Hotham, SJU chief of Technology and Innovation, 85 percent of the work has been allocated to organizations best equipped to carry it out. As a result, some 2,050 experts were working on the program at this writing, a number expected to rise. Of 110 companies involved, several are based in the United States, including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Honeywell, ACSS and Rockwell Collins. The entire R&D effort is being undertaken in close collaboration with FAA to ensure interoperability with the equivalent NextGen program in the United States.

Much of the present SESAR phase is concerned with validating a new concept of operations (ConOps) that will underpin European ATM transformation. This concept, formulated as part of the earlier Definition phase, requires progress in three key areas:

1. A move to time-based operations, largely realizable with current technology, along with better communication between ground and airborne equipment.

2. Introduction of trajectory-based operations based on aircraft trajectories in four dimensions (three spatial plus time). These would extend gate to gate.

3. Implementation of an “intranet of the air,” an over-arching communications layer enabling all parties in the air and on the ground to share ATM data. This System Wide Information Management (SWIM) system will enable wide situational awareness.

Michael Standar, SJU chief of Air Traffic Management, says a combination of these approaches will bring early benefits to air transport. He notes in particular that delivery of the 4D trajectory and the ability of all aviation stakeholders to share relevant information are crucial.

Patrick Ky, SJU executive director, emphasizes the importance of early benefits, pointing out that there is “low hanging fruit” that can be harvested, much of it through the use of existing equipment. Early achievements will, Ky argues, sharpen stakeholders’ desire for further ATM improvements and hence their willingness to make the necessary investments in equipment, operations and training.

“SESAR has been, is and always will be about delivering results that can be implemented easily,” Ky stated.

“By the end of 2011 we will have the first program deliverables validated in an operational environment, with benefits for airlines, controllers, passengers and the environment.”

Release 2011

This first set of deliverables, dubbed SESAR Release 2011 and previewed at the ATC Global conference in Amsterdam in March, will provide early value for stakeholders. Through simulations, prototyping and shadow mode or live flight trials, SESAR participants will perform 29 validation exercises across Europe. A number have already taken place.

One notable achievement, for instance, concerns an airborne safety net feature that Airbus has developed but required both validation and a justifying business case. Essentially, the new capability is the automation of avoidance actions following TCAS resolution advisories whereby the avoidance maneuver is flown automatically rather than by the pilot. This addresses those situations in which pilots have ignored advisories because they thought they conflicted with ATC instructions or for other reasons, or have reacted too late. A team led by French air navigation services provider DSNA and including experts from Airbus, consultancy Egis Avia, Eurocontrol and NATS in the United Kingdom has conducted the validation and is working on business case development.

Another deliverable will be a fully validated “remote tower” concept under which small local airports can be monitored remotely and their traffic controlled from a single, larger air-traffic control center, avoiding the need to provide and man a control facility at each airport. SESAR member NORACON, a consortium of eight ANSPs, performs ATC services at Angelholm Airport, Sweden, from a remote site with a remote tower prototype. This is being used to demonstrate the practicality of the Distant Aerodrome Control Service.

NATS is carrying out new approach procedures at Southampton Airport, U.K., using satellite technology. The aim is to reduce the number of disruptions due to poor weather, to make approach operations more cost effective and to enhance safety overall.

Yet another task for Release 2011 is the verification of Controlled Time of Arrival procedures in support of initial 4D capabilities. Prototype datalink and other equipment will allow air-traffic controllers and pilots to share the same information. Eurocontrol, LFV of Sweden and Airbus are using flight trials to validate the procedures.

Commenting on achievements planned for this year, SJU’s Hotham says, “The scope of these validation activities covers the provision of test tools and equipment prototypes so that we get as close to the market with these developments as possible. Release 2011 will undoubtedly provide a valuable set of capabilities, some of which will be fully industrialized and ready to deploy.”

By 2012, about halfway through the Development phase, the SJU intends to have met a number of concrete targets, including the performance of 10,000 flights, 500 of them military; the establishment of SWIM on a pilot basis; initial 4D trajectory verification; testing of 80 percent of SESAR projects in a real-life environment; and operation of the first remote control towers.

Data exchange will continue to be developed to improve coordination between flight profiles and movements of aircraft on the ground. Activities at airports will contribute to improved surface management and runway utilization. In terminal airspaces, there will be a focus on advanced Continuous Descent Approaches and Continuous Climb Departures, aimed at further ATM efficiency increases and reduced environmental impact. Such actions will demonstrate that SESAR is no “pie in the sky” concept and that Europe is on the way to converting its ATM vision into reality.

One good omen for stakeholder acceptance of the ATM revolution now under way is the widespread interest being shown in trials currently in progress under the Atlantic Interoperability Initiative to Reduce Emissions (AIRE). This series of flight trials and demonstrations, aimed at reducing CO2 emissions for surface, terminal and oceanic flight operations, is managed by the SJU for Europe in collaboration with FAA for the United States. In 2009 some 1,150 “green” flights were undertaken, and so promising were the results that the program recently has been expanded. In particular, the SJU has selected 18 projects involving 40 airline, airport, ANSP and industry partners.

These partners will collaborate on operations between city pairs as well as transatlantic and, to this end, new partners have come on board from such additional locations as Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Canada, Morocco, the Netherlands, the U.K. and Switzerland.

Ky emphasizes the benefits of the highly collaborative approach being taken. “AIRE 2 will demonstrate that green flight operations can be applied everywhere immediately when partners agree to work together with a common goal,” he said. “This is not the future, this is SESAR’s reality.”

Several transatlantic green flights are to be operated by the Airbus A380 superjumbo. Seven projects involve integrated gate-to-gate operations, a number of these being supported by FAA and NAV Canada as well as European partners.

Some validation projects are being conducted in Europe’s most congested airspaces and at the busiest airports. For example, improvements in terminal operations are the focus of trials involving Lufthansa and Germanwings arrivals at Dusseldorf and Cologne, an area of particularly dense traffic. Certain projects will focus on vertical and speed optimization, while partners who have already participated during the last couple of years will expand on results achieved by bringing green procedures into routine use. AIRE is also building the first blocks of the SESAR ConOps by testing 4D trajectory-based operations and SESAR’s concept of performance-based navigation.

Four enroute/oceanic projects cover five new locations (Portugal, Canada, Morocco, the U.K. and U.S.) and aim, inter alia, to offer shortened flight paths for heavy long-range aircraft crossing the flight information regions of Lisbon and Casablanca. A “Greener airports operations under adverse conditions” project taking place in France is studying situations caused by bad weather or other factors constraining runway use.

Airport Capacity

Clearly, improving airspace capacity is of little use if airport capacity remains a choke point. That is why, in 2009, operators of six of Europe’s most capacity-constrained airports came together in a consortium to develop procedures aimed at expanding airport capacity while also reducing emissions and noise.

The six participants in the SESAR European Airports Consortium (SEAC) — Aeroports de Paris, Schiphol Nederland BV, BAA Ltd. (UK), Flughafen Munchen GmbH (Germany), Flughafen Zurich AG and Fraport AG (Switzerland) — also provide representation for Europe’s many smaller airports (the continent has some 1,500 airports) via a dialogue with Europe’s Airports Council International and through the consortium’s own membership in the SJU. Additionally, there is close collaboration with the NORACON consortium (Norway and Sweden) and with AENA in Spain.

SEAC is devising procedural improvements within SESAR Work Package 6, Airport Operations, and considering how to improve airport infrastructures. In terms of the latter, all players realize that simply adding new runways, even where this is not ruled out on grounds of finance or public objections, is not the whole answer and recognize that facilitating traffic movements on the airport surface will be an important contributor. SEAC is also working to integrate new airport procedures with AIRE gate-to-gate initiatives.

Enabling airports to collaborate more closely with each other will require improved communications between them. A broadband system, which will integrate with the SWIM intranet, will be based on L-band line-of-sight terrestrial communications and on satellite communications. Whether the latter is via a dedicated or commercial satellite constellation has yet to be decided.

As an example of the industrial involvement that is central to SESAR, a team led by Spain’s Indra is developing a microwave-based airport surface datalink, a prototype of which is expected to be ready by the end of this year (Work Package 15.2.7).

Improved communications and shared traffic awareness will enable airports to operate more collaboratively and engage in Airport Collaborative Decision Making (A-CDM). Over the last two years, the A-CDM program has made great progress, with more than 20 airports so far actively implementing it. By the end of this year, 10 of those airports are expected to have completed the implementation. Further roll-out of the program will continue with ACI Europe, Eurocontrol and the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization (CANSO) all actively encouraging new participants.

As Eurocontrol Director General David McMillan has commented, “A-CDM is a fine illustration of the way performance improvements can often be achieved without major capital expenditure. But it depends on partnership — working together — and is based on an integrated approach with information being shared across different players. It emphasizes the network nature of ATM where an apparently local decision can have implications right across Europe. And of course it is focused on airports, which are right at the heart of the need to increase capacity.”

Eurocontrol, the pan-European air traffic control authority which led the SESAR Definition phase, may, with the present phase, have ceded SESAR leadership to the SJU, but it remains pivotal, not least as a key member of the SJU. It is actively leading a number of the work packages while also participating in others. One area of focus, for instance, is information management (WP 8) and information architecture (WP 14).

Accordingly, Eurocontrol is involved in designing SWIM and other information sharing technologies such as the Pan-European Network Service (PENS). It is helping to refine target concept elements through work packages for En-Route, Approach and Terminal operations, (WPs 4,5 and 10); airport ATC (WPs 6 and 12); and network information management (WP 13). It leads R&D transversal activities (such aspects as safety, security and environment, WP 16) and Master Plan Maintenance (WP C) as the plan evolves in line with SESAR progress.

Eurocontrol is actively involved with new communications, navigation and surveillance (CNS) technologies, both on the aircraft and in terms of non-avionic systems. Its purview includes 4D trajectory management functions, aircraft separation assurance, approach functionalities and surface movement operations. WP 9 activities embrace aircraft systems supporting initial 4D trajectory operations — air traffic situational awareness (ATSAW), airborne separation assistance system (ASAS), sequencing and merging — and eventual full 4D with self-separation and free routing. It is contributing to development of the future GNSS-based navigation infrastructure and enhancement of ground surveillance systems in support of Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B).

Crucial to all these activities and central to the SESAR philosophy is the conviction that evolution must be led by performance requirements rather than, as seems to have happened in the past, by technology. Part of the function of SESAR is to select technologies that best meet carefully researched and formulated performance requirements.

A small team based at the Eurocontrol Experimental Center in Bretigny, France, is managing long-term, innovative research under WP E. Supported by the SESAR Scientific Committee, it marshals research networks of academic and industrial players to explore new ideas for the long term and potentially useful innovations that might be of benefit in the short term. Forward-looking project themes range from higher levels of ATM automation to mastering complex systems safely.

A noteworthy member of the Scientific Committee that supports the team is Frank de Winne, a European Space Agency astronaut who was the first European to have a spell in command of the International Space Station. He supports the SJU in defining research themes and is particularly interested in finding simple solutions for complex situations.

On schedule?

Will the 2016 target date for completion of the SESAR Development phase be met? Our soundings suggest that, although there have been delays in the program and the air transport recession has reduced its apparent urgency, the date could still be met — just.

Paul Ravenhill, technical director at Helios, an ATM consultancy in the U.K., argues that now all research activities are being well coordinated, there is strong and focused momentum so that results will come faster than hitherto.

Ravenhill points out the need for ATM improvement is still urgent, commenting, “SESAR was designed when air transport was booming. Currently, we are in a down cycle, but in a few years the industry may be on the up again and ATM limitations will once again threaten to constrain growth. I know it’s hard for an industry that is hurting to take the message on board at the moment, but we need to invest for the future.”

Ravenhill concedes that marshalling the funding needed to secure full ATM transformation in the next, Implementation, phase will be a big challenge if present economic conditions persist. To overcome this, innovative financing models may be needed. An example is the proposal recently made by an ITT-led team in the United States, for helping aircraft operators equip for NextGen. The general idea is that aircraft operators might be enabled to lease the necessary avionics initially, gaining full ownership through stage payments made as the FAA meets specified milestones for ATM improvement. Similar creative ideas are being discussed for Europe also.

Along with his role at Helios, whose consultancy services contribute to SESAR, Ravenhill leads the secretariat of the Industry Consultation Body (ICB), a forum through which industry players provide advice to the European Commission on the legal framework for SESAR.

“The ICB continues to do a sterling job,” he said. “Over the last couple of years it has formulated a series of views on the implementing rules that will be part of the new regulatory framework required for future performance-based ATM.”

This makes the point that, in a large pan-European venture like ATM renewal, agreed rules within an overall body of legislation are as vital as technological and operational improvements in ensuring a satisfactory outcome. Helios is also helping ANSPs move away from an airspace model predicated on national boundaries, along with multiple air-traffic control centers, to a more rational infrastructure of cross-national Functional Airspace Blocks (FABs) and eventually fewer centers. FABs are central to the Single European Sky legislation and go hand-in-hand with SESAR by providing bigger blocks of airspace in which the new technologies can work.

Realizing early benefits, as much as possible with existing equipment, is vital but it is inescapable that SESAR cannot fully deliver on its promise without major investment in avionics. Airbus, for instance, does not see the full benefits being delivered until around 2025 when a new generation of “smart” aircraft will be replacing today’s wide and narrow bodies, and ground facilities should have evolved to match. Before that time, there will need to be considerable retrofit to enable existing aircraft to thrive in the new ATM environment. Airbus recently formed a subsidiary, ProSky, to develop ATM equipment and help move the SESAR project forward.

European officials also desire faster progress. EU Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas, for one, wants a higher priority accorded to the Single European Sky. Ulrich Schulte-Strathaus, secretary general of the Association of European Airlines, agreed when he told a high-level meeting that the present inefficient ATM system is costing airlines $4.2 billion and that flying indirect routings creates 16 million tonnes of avoidable CO2 emissions.

Perhaps the recent achievements of SESAR, culminating in the present-year release of validation projects, with another to follow in 2012, will help convince skeptics that real progress is being made, that SESAR is already delivering, and that given continued stakeholder commitment there is much more to come.

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