The future of Europe's aviation sector: embracing innovation

Julie Garland

The seamless integration of new technologies into existing systems is a critical challenge, writes Julie Garland, CEO of aviation training organisation Avtrain.

The aviation industry, a cornerstone of global connectivity and economic progress, is undergoing a paradigm shift. Europe, at the forefront of this revolution, is witnessing a confluence of innovation in autonomy, digital services, sustainability and inclusivity reshaping the future of air travel. Here we delve into how these advancements are transforming Europe's air traffic management (ATM) services and the broader aviation sector, particularly pilot training, and how using the drone industry is accelerating us towards a fully integrated ATM/UTM (uncrewed aircraft system traffic management). These innovations will have a profound impact on traditional aviation and, in particular, on ATM services.

The drone industry is the foundation for the future of passenger-carrying, fully autonomous aircraft. We can use the current regulatory environment and technology to test out the reliability, certification standards and ecosystem requirements (such as off-airport vertiports), and then scale for the future where we have larger aircraft with precious cargo (people). Autonomous aircraft are not just a leap in technology but a stride towards enhanced safety, efficiency and environmental sustainability. These uncrewed systems need a reimagined approach to ATM/UTM, where traditional human-centric models evolve to seamlessly integrate autonomous operations.

There has been a positive uptake by the public of delivery drone services and the desire for immediate, on-demand services will continue to support growth in this area. However, we have a lot more work to do to see eVTOL (electric Vertical Take-off and Landing) aircraft being widely accepted or demanded by the public, as can be seen in recent comments from French local councils when discussing the upcoming Paris flights by Volocopter at the Olympics. Some use cases are immediately acceptable – such as medical emergencies/ evacuation/disaster zones, while others (such as widespread air taxis) will require more engagement with the community, highlighting the positivity of this green mode of transport, so long as the electricity for charging is generated sustainably.

The role of pilots is undergoing a dramatic transformation. In the early stages of the Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) industry, the public and regulators will want pilots onboard aircraft that carry people. But will pilots be pilots as we know them? Will they even be called pilots? What skills will they require? Given the levels of autonomy on these new generation aircraft should they be redefined as systems operators? Certainly, while the industry is new, we will have commercially qualified, possibly even instrument-rated pilots with eVTOL-type ratings flying these aircraft. But can the industry support this long term? There is a significant pilot shortage globally and the cost of the training and salary of an airline pilot will not be sustainable in the AAM industry. So, we need to redefine the role, the requirements, the training syllabus, the delivery of training, the licensing of these systems operators and the role of the human in the loop interaction. And when do we remove them from the aircraft and allow remotely piloted aircraft to carry passengers as a stepping stone towards fully autonomous passenger carrying flights?

The cargo industry, on the other hand, will be an early adopter of eVTOL as this sector is traditionally the least environmentally friendly in the industry with older, fuel-inefficient aircraft. The sector is likely to use fully autonomous flight before we carry passengers autonomously.

Collaborations between aviation authorities, OEMs, ATM/UTM providers, educational institutions and industry stakeholders are crucial in developing comprehensive training programmes. These initiatives should focus on virtual/augmented reality (VR/AR) and mixed reality, AI, machine learning – and a combination of these not yet seen in the aviation industry.

While we embrace technology as an industry, we do not generally move forward quickly; however, the AAM industry will require regulators to keep pace with technological advances.

Aviation businesses must adopt agile and forward-thinking strategies to stay relevant. This involves investing in research and development, fostering a culture of innovation and adapting business models to incorporate new technologies and practices. A positive example of this is the work Avtrain carried out with ASL Airlines to achieve their EASA Light Unmanned Aircraft Systems Certification (LUC) in 2023. ASL Future Flight, as one of the largest movers of freight in Europe, will use the certification to “train and gain experience on drone operations before moving onto heavier and longer-range operations”, according to the company. LUC is the equivalent of an Air Operator Certificate (AOC) for drones.

The seamless integration of new technologies into existing systems is a critical challenge. Collaborations between technology providers, aviation companies and regulatory bodies are essential to ensure that this integration is efficient, safe and compliant with existing regulations. Many ATM systems are based on archaic technology that might not support a fully automated environment.

SESAR 3 Joint Undertaking (SESAR-JU) is a European partnership between private and public sector partners that was set up to accelerate, through research and innovation, the delivery of the Digital European Sky. SESAR is harnessing, developing and accelerating the take-up of the most cutting-edge technological solutions to manage conventional aircraft, drones, air taxis and vehicles flying at higher altitudes.

EALU-AER  is a technology infrastructure integration and demonstration project. EALU-AER aims to establish Ireland’s first Digital Sky Demonstrator (DSD), located at Future Mobility Campus, Ireland’s (FMCI) recently established vertiport site, in Shannon, Ireland. The aims of the project are to:

  • prove the feasibility, reliability and operational efficiency of transport services provided by various eVTOL aircraft for a variety of use cases and applications;
  • foster and accelerate the development of autonomous software solutions for the control, monitoring, data gathering/orchestration and overall interaction and safety of eVTOL aircraft;
  • develop, deploy, and continually test/optimise the use of UAM, rural/remote air transport/ freight delivery, and UTM systems in support of eVTOL services;
  • develop, deploy and refine operational systems in general eVTOL-based services across multiple use cases and political jurisdictions;
  • define possible Separation Standards for Aircraft and UAVs in controlled airspace through partnership with Air Nav Ireland.

This project will see the integration of a UTM technology platform as part of the FMCI operations site, which will leverage a UTM technology solution that encompasses a UAS platform (WebUAS), a backhaul network (AGN), command and control (C2) and surveillance equipment, and advanced three-dimensional phased array radar (Skyler). This technology solution will be integrated as part of FMCI’s vertiport and associated facilities to demonstrate the proposed U-space architecture operations and enable U1/U2 services and integration with ATM/ATC. To demonstrate a range of UAM operations, across the range of U-space services projected through the SESAR U-space CONOPS, the project will execute a number of use cases across the three-year period of the programme that capture the operational requirements, vehicle dynamics and technology demonstrations associated with the projected near-term UAM services market, such as local inspection, light-freight, long distance logistics, air-taxi operations, etc.

The use cases are intended to operate in a compounding fashion to build upon prior phases and prior activities carried out in previous SESAR and external programmes. Outputs of these operations are intended to inform and validate the concept of operations, demonstrate and validate the U-space architecture and pave a way for enhanced automation and U3, U4 services – such as detect and avoid and dynamic capacity management.

"By embracing a culture of continuous learning, the aviation sector can soar to new heights of safety, efficiency and sustainability."

EALU-AER is intended to be an infrastructure platform that can be leveraged to support further developments through future SESAR programmes and work streams (see panel on page 25). The UTM technology solution being implemented in this project is intended to be modular and scalable and aligned with the proposed U-space architecture. EALU-AER will feature an integration effort that will see advanced UTM, C2 and surveillance technologies from Collins Aerospace (a leading aerospace systems integrator) being brought together as part of a consortium that will leverage Ireland’s first vertiport (developed as part of a wider transport automation research and demonstration campus) at FMCI, with Avtrain as the regulatory expert for drones, risk management, operator certification, AAM and UTM; AirNav Ireland as the air navigation service provider (ANSP); Shannon Airport Group as the operator of an international airport; Deep Blue as a leading research consultant for safety, security and human performance; and Manna Drone representing the OEM and operator. While the project is for a three-year period, it is planned to build the ecosystem and infrastructure that will continue well into the future.

The future of Europe's aviation sector, shaped by autonomy, digitisation and sustainability, presents challenges and opportunities. To harness the full potential of these innovations, a concerted effort is needed to bridge the skills gap for pilots, regulators and ANSPs through projects such as EALU-AER DSD. By embracing a culture of continuous learning, fostering collaborations and adapting to new business and institutional models, the aviation sector can soar to new heights of safety, efficiency and sustainability. The journey ahead is complex but promising, paving the way for a brighter, more connected future in European skies.

Julie Garland

Julie Garland

is the Founder and CEO of Avtrain – one of Europe’s leading drone training and consultancy organisations. She is a former Airline Training Captain, Aircraft Maintenance Engineer, Barrister at Law and Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators. Prior to undertaking her position as CEO of Avtrain she was the Director Compliance for Norwegian Air International. She is the founding and current Vice-Chair of the Unmanned Aircraft Association of Ireland and is President of the Joint European Drone Associations (JEDA) as the Irish representative and is the JEDA representative on JARUS (the Joint Authorities for Rulemaking on Unmanned Systems) where she is Vice-Chair of the JARUS Industry Stakeholder Body’s Steering Committee.

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