The higher airspace (airspace approximately 60,000 ft) is no longer exclusive to space rockets and military spy planes, but hosts an expanding range of long-endurance balloons, High Altitude Platform Stations (HAPS), supersonic and hypersonic aircraft. With missions varying from connectivity and surveillance to passenger transport and satellite services, these vehicles with vastly different operating characteristics present a new airspace management challenge.
European safety agencies are responding in partnership with industry to define the principles and operational assumptions that will enable development of a Concept of Operations (ConOps) for higher airspace. The European Commission tasked the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) with preparing a regulatory framework and the EUROCONTROL Higher Airspace Operations Symposium in April 2019 set out some high-level principles. The initiative gained further momentum in November 2020 when the SESAR Joint Undertaking (SJU) secured Horizon 2020 funding for the two-year ECHO project to develop higher airspace ConOps. ECHO is supported by an advisory group including EASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Defence Agency (EDA) that facilitates consistency between the regulatory framework and ConOps development.
ECHO is on track to deliver a comprehensive demand analysis and ConOps to allow safe, efficient and scalable operations. A key objective is to address operations of vehicles today as well as of vehicles and activities still to be developed, hence the project identifies short-, medium- and long-term timeframes and is expected to feed into ICAO efforts to develop global guidance material.
ECHO Project Leader Henk Hof says the higher airspace provides an enormous opportunity for the airspace management industry generally.
We have a chance from the start to take a pan-European approach rather than a state or national perspective. Additionally, the absence of legacy technology presents a unique proving ground for innovation. It allows information sharing, collaborative processes, System Wide Information Management (SWIM), trajectory-based operations and other ICAO concepts to take a giant step forward.”
Once they have been shown to work, these new concepts can then be made available for use in the airspace below.
Among ECHO’s first actions, the project released a series of principles and assumptions regarding higher airspace in early 2021. This sets out the safety objectives, airspace access, security and defence, civil-military coordination and interfaces with other airspace and air traffic management. This was discussed at the first of three workshops involving the whole stakeholder community in mid-2021 to find out more about user requirements and obtain feedback. A second workshop in January 2022 will review the first ConOps document, followed by a third in July 2022 to provide final input.
“We need to get a picture of the demand,” explains Henk Hof. “There are clear developments in the commercial space category – for example states building spaceports and planning launches such as the UK, Italy and Sweden. It is also possible to estimate super and hypersonic user requirements based on US developments like Boom Supersonic. The category where there is most uncertainty is high altitude platform systems (HAPS) which features all kinds of platforms with the ability to stay aloft for weeks or even months at a time.”
ECHO has embarked on a series of interviews targeting specific companies to find out more about the performance characteristics of these airspace users.