Business & GA, Commercial

Q&A: NLR: The Leading Edge of European Research

By Bill Carey | June 1, 2007
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Jacco M. Hoekstra is head of the air transport division of the Nationaal Lucht-en Ruimtevaartlaboratorium (NLR), the National Aerospace Laboratory of the Netherlands. In this capacity, he oversees 140 researchers engaged in five focus areas. Hoekstra joined NLR in 1991 and has headed the Human Factors, Training & Concept Validation and Flight Simulation departments. He received his masters’ degree and private pilot’s license from Delft University of Technology. For his doctoral degree, Hoekstra investigated the safety and feasibility of airborne separation as part of the "Free Flight" project.

In a recent interview with Avionics Editor Bill Carey in Amsterdam, Hoekstra discussed NLR and some of its research objectives and projects.

Q: Could you give us an overview of NLR and the Air Transport Division?

A: The Air Transport Division is one of three divisions at NLR. We have one division focused on structures and aerodynamics, another with putting in the systems, the electronics, and we are mainly interested with the aspects of using the aircraft. Our customers are [national] authorities, airlines, air traffic control, airports.

Q: What is NLR’s annual budget?

A: NLR has a turnover of about 76 million Euros ($102 million), of which 20 to 25 percent is sponsored by the government in return for which we have to do certain research work. It works basically as a fixed contract. The other 75 to 80 percent is contract work for our customers. We are an independent, nonprofit research institute. We have two sites: the headquarters in Amsterdam and another site in Noordoostpolder, one hour drive [away]. We currently employ 750 people, 450 in Amsterdam.

Q: What are the major priorities of the Air Transport Division?

A: There are basically three goals for which our division works: the capacity of the system, the safety, and the environmental aspects. We have specific departments focused on those three goals, but there are also means to achieve those goals, and those we discriminate in two categories — the humans and the systems, and we also have two departments focused on those areas. Those five departments basically form the division. One department, which is growing, is working the area of safety and security. [As of 2006] it has been formed as a separate institute, the Air Transport Safety Institute. It is still part of the division, but has a different organization and more independence.

Q: What is the status of the SAFEE (Security of Aircraft in the Future European Environment) program and what milestones have been achieved?

A: The goal is mainly to improve in-flight security. Right now, there is a huge difference between the security measures in the airport and those on board of the aircraft. You go through many checks and gates at the airport, but as soon as you enter the aircraft there’s nowadays a closed cockpit door, but that’s basically all. The goal is basically to prevent a repetition of 9/11. Therefore, a number of systems will be prototyped.

Q: Can you comment on plans for continuous descent approaches (CDA) at Schiphol Airport?

A: There is a committee in the Netherlands in which all of the parties around Schiphol, including KLM and the airport, are looking at a program. There was a kickoff meeting at ATC Maastricht [in February]. Now, the program is at the study phase, but will progress to a demonstration this year. The actual flights could be later in the process.

We are looking at down-linking flight information to increase predictability and enable continuous descent approaches. It’s interesting to look at a city pair, because then you also have complete flights. So the city pair we are looking at is Stockholm-Amsterdam.

As you get closer to the airport, the predictability of the flight increases because of the reduced flight time. If you have a sufficient amount of data from the flight management system on the ground, you can much better predict where the aircraft will be and, indeed, do the flow-management and even conflict detection and resolution. That’s one of the main problems right now with continuous descent approaches because of different performance and resulting profiles for the different aircraft types — it’s very hard to predict it without this data. Every flight management system aboard the aircraft knows this [and] is able to predict the flight path and estimated time of arrival very accurately. But, of course, it’s ridiculous to [report] this over voice. So the plan is to establish a data link, using the experimental protocols that are out there right now, and get this data on the ground.

It’s quite a complex problem — continuous descent approaches, especially increasing the capacity of approaches. Because everybody can do it at night, when it’s not busy. But to have a high capacity, and being able to do this during the day as well, that’s the main goal of this project.... CDAs are very important for Schiphol because we have very strict measures here for noise abatement. To meet the capacity goals within the environmental limits is a complex issue. Basically the goal is idle descents — taking out the level segments that are there now. Those generate a lot of noise but also a lot of emissions because of the low speeds that the aircraft are not designed for. They have to fly nearly full throttle in turns, and at low speeds, and you take out all these segments with continuous descent approaches.

Q: What is NLR doing for the SESAR (Single European Sky ATM Research) program?

A: SESAR is now starting up with a new phase, the definition phase. We contribute with our experts to some committees, but there are no actual validations, unlike for SAFEE, [where] our flight simulator is used to validate the whole concept. The next phase [of SESAR] will contain validation, and there the R&D establishments will have a huge role because they have the validation infrastructure.

Q: How do you view the harmonization taking place between the United States and Europe?

A: There’s a regular meeting between FAA and Eurocontrol and with all the parties in the U.S. and Europe as well. The research community cooperates very well.

Q: What do you see as the challenges of achieving the SESAR vision?

A: There is the paradigm change — how much are you able to change the paradigm, the roles, the procedures, between air and ground. [That is] a clear issue. Another is automation; which things do you automate and which do you leave to humans? And, of course, SESAR is not a program that looks into the far future. It’s a program that ends with the third phase of implementation. That’s also an important aspect — the timing, [and] which technology is sufficiently feasible to be implemented in the next phase.


SAFEE Enters Validation Phase

A European effort aimed at improving onboard security of commercial aircraft against hijacking threats entered the testing and validation phase. Now in its fourth and final year, the Safety of Aircraft in the Future European Environment (SAFEE) program will test cabin sensor and crew alerting systems, a passenger access-control function, doorway detection of unlawful objects and security of data and voice communications. More than 30 industry and research partners, led by France’s Sagem Defense Securite, have participated in the $48 million program sponsored by the European Union.

Technologies developed under SAFEE are at the initial readiness stage; it will be the responsibility of industry to develop them further, said officials with the National Aerospace Laboratory (NLR) of the Netherlands.

NLR officials described some of the components of SAFEE, an EU 6th Framework research program that likely will be extended in different form under the 7th Framework. They include:

–– A sensor suite that registers abnormal situations in the cabin through the use of video cameras, sound monitoring and some chemical trace monitoring, with an alerting capability to the cockpit. The cockpit interface would be an electronic flight bag. A Threat Assessment and Response Management System would collect information from the sensors, classify a situation, determine if it exceeds a trigger level and provide a warning and response advice to the crew.

–– An access-control function, providing a link from check-in to the person seeking access to the aircraft. Boarding passes with embedded chips would enable the crew to verify the person is the same in both cases.

–– The capability to detect, at the aircraft door, unlawful objects, including metal and explosive devices.

–– Protection of communications on the aircraft, through digital "watermarking" of voice communications and data encryption, to prevent false information. Also considered is a jam-resistant, low-bandwidth data link capability, based on military technology, to preserve communications with the ground and at least report a situation.

–– NLR is involved in a separate project with Eurocontrol — the European Regional Renegade Information Dissemination System (ERRIDS) — that could dovetail with SAFEE. Still in the development phase, ERRIDS is a Web-based tool that supports dissemination of information and transfer of authority on the ground for security situations. Planners envision a report generated by the SAFEE system will be inputted into ERRIDS, where it would be disseminated to authorities on a need-to-know basis. In Europe, once a flight is classified as hijacked, it becomes a national responsibility. There is a transfer of authority at each border crossing, but currently there are no supporting tools to inform the authorities involved.

"With the small countries we have here and there in Europe, the intercept of an aircraft might take place when it’s already over another country, and there you don’t have any authority to deal with it," said Jacco M. Hoekstra, head of NLR’s air transport division. "It’s crucial for Europe to have this interchange of information in time to make sure that the one who has to act also has the authority to act."

A follow-on program under the EU 7th Framework would address topics not advanced by SAFEE. NLR officials expect systems for in-flight security will be further developed, along with the technologically feasible but controversial topics of controlling aircraft either automatically or from the ground, preventing aircraft from crashing into protected sites, and automated landings. Research into these areas is "controversial because they contradict the pilot-in-command principle," said Hoekstra. "It also has a huge impact on safety, if such a system malfunctions and the pilot is not able to switch it off. You should be aware that you do not increase security at the cost of safety. You have to be very sure how to combine those two goals." — Bill Carey


SAFEE Project Partners

France: Sagem, program coordinator; Airbus; Thales Avionics; Rockwell Collins France; Sodielec; European Aeronautic Defence and Space (EADS); SITA; Informatique Electromagnétisme Electronique Analyse; Miriad Technologies; ENERTEC S.A.; Onera, French Aerospace Lab

Germany: Airbus; EADS; Siemens; Munich Technical University Institute for Human-Machine Communication; Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing

Italy: Galileo Avionica, Marconi, Teleavio, Cenciarini;

The Netherlands: Nationaal Lucht-en Ruimtevaartlaboratorium, ECORYS Research and Consulting;

United Kingdom: BAE Systems; University of Reading;

Belgium: Centre de Diffusion des Technologies de l’information;

Finland: Environics;

Greece: Hellenic Aerospace Industry;

Ireland: Airtel ATN; Israel: Athena GS3 Security Implemenations;

Portugal: Skysoft;

Spain: Ingeniería de Sistemas para la Defensa de España S.A. (Isdefe)

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