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Giving Europe’s air traffic controllers a helping hand

Actors from Europe’s aviation industry have developed ways to improve how ground traffic is managed at airports. An EU project has taken four new technologies and put them to the test via large-scale demonstrations at Budapest, Hamburg and Nice airports.

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Three of the solutions are designed to help air traffic controllers safely and efficiently manage the movements of planes on the ground. A fourth examines the quality of data that can be collected by flight crews on board planes. All are considered mature technologies. But putting them to work via large-scale demonstrations has allowed for fine-tuning and shows how they can benefit a real operational environment. The PJ28 IAO project was funded within the framework of the SESAR Joint Undertaking, a public-private partnership set up to modernise Europe’s air traffic management system. The first technology is a route-planning tool which can improve the situational awareness of air traffic controllers.

Sharper focus

“Typically a controller looks out of the window and has a mental picture in their head of how to guide an airplane to the runway. This solution calculates an optimised taxi route based on the plane’s position and destination, which the controller can then accept or modify if needed,” says Steffen Loth, senior researcher at the German Aerospace Center’s Institute of Flight Guidance and PJ28 IAO project coordinator. The system works in the background, applying all the airport’s rules and procedures, allowing the controller to really focus on guiding the plane. The demonstration showed benefits for controllers and highlighted the difference between simulated and real-life settings. “For the solution to work, you need a lot of data on how that specific airport operates, especially the typical procedures a controller would expect to see. Each airport is different,” notes Loth. The second solution, pre-departure sequencing, builds on these optimised taxi routes to try and ensure airplanes spend less time queuing for take-off on runways, thereby saving fuel. The demonstration made clear that sometimes complex variables at airports meant the taxi times were not accurate enough to make this solution work as well as intended.

Heading off risky situations

The third solution monitors whether a pilot is following a controller’s instructions to the letter or not. “The system sees all movements in the airport, checks if clearance has been given and alerts the controller if something deviates from instructions,” explains Loth. It also checks if two sets of instructions would lead to a critical situation – such as one plane trying to get onto a runway while another is landing – and alerts the controller. “It is heading off a critical situation before it arises.” This solution, which provides an additional layer of safety, also needed fine-tuning but was very well received by controllers. “They have to look at a lot of things in parallel, especially when it gets crowded on the ground, so it helps them to focus and spot when critical situations could occur,” says Loth. The fourth concept related to traffic alerts, and involved analysing the quality of positioning data gathered on board planes during taxiing. It produced promising results too. “With the new generations of automatic surveillance technology on board, this produced very good results which could be a big help to flight crews,” adds Loth. He is satisfied that the demonstrations showed that the first and third solutions in particular do fit into controllers’ ways of working and existing infrastructure at European airports. They have also shown what more needs to be done to get the solutions ready for deployment.


PJ28 IAO, air traffic controllers, demonstrations, safety, routing, European airports, aviation, SESAR

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