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Innovation is front and centre of the agency’s research strategy

Innovation hub

Adopting the new name EUROCONTROL Innovation Hub reflects deep-rooted change at the Agency's Brétigny research facility, says Laurent Renou, Head of Air Transport Innovation at EUROCONTROL

Accelerated transformation in the past two years reflects heightened focus on project implementation as a logical outcome of research into new concepts and wider partner engagement. Appointed Head of Air Transport Innovation in 2020, Laurent Renou is steering the policy shift to reflect current industry trends. “The focus is on innovation, industrialisation and deployment. There is still room for exploratory research, but we can help bridge the gap between research and implementation.”

The new focus coincides with the start of Europe’s latest airspace research programme, SESAR 3. The European Commission initiative aims to deliver the technological solutions needed to achieve modernisation and digitalisation of air traffic management in Europe through a series of research and innovation projects.

“We have a pragmatic approach," explains Laurent Renou. "Our role is to bring agility to the SESAR programme. For example, we can launch ideas and quickly develop prototypes in partnership with airspace users within a 12-month period that fulfil SESAR objectives. The Innovation Hub serves to harmonise what will be delivered and provide a mechanism to full-scale SESAR initiatives.”

EUROCONTROL Innovation Hub intends to provide a forum available to all 50 members of SESAR 3 that aims to promote a methodical and systematic approach to the activities.

Early results from the new way of working will be demonstrated in Summer with the introduction of two Artificial Intelligence (AI) prototype solutions developed during the first innovation cycle launched in collaboration with airspace users in 2021. Swiss, Transavia and Vueling Airlines are fielding algorithms developed by EUROCONTROL to manage flight planning in an operational environment. The first predicts departure delay in advance, enabling the airline to better schedule operations on the ground to minimise delay or divert resources to more critical departures. “Even an hour’s advance warning helps to optimise ground operations,” explains Laurent Renou. The second helps airspace users to manage curfews at airports such as Zurich or Paris-Orly. By flagging up possible curfew difficulties early in the day, airlines have the opportunity to mitigate against delays on the last leg and avoid diversion costs.

The Innovation Hub launched a second innovation cycle in April 2021 with eight projects. Some of them already achieved promising results that were presented during our Promote Event on May 17th. While airspace users were involved in the three initial projects, the second cycle expands the network of operational stakeholders working with the agency, adding air navigation service providers (ANSPs) and airport authorities, for which three projects each were selected. The projects last for 6, 12, or 18 months depending upon the complexity and stakeholders involved, with a third cycle launched in November 2021 that includes two projects dedicated to military applications and a third one proposed by AENA, the Spanish Airport Authority, which are due to conclude in November 2022. The fourth cycle has just been launched during our Promote event with four innovation projects submitted by Istanbul Airport, LFV (Swedish ANSP) and Vueling Airlines.

Future vision

EUROCONTROL is preparing for the fifth innovation cycle which is set to engage with the fast-evolving uncrewed aerial systems (UAS) sector. The cycle will get underway in late 2022, on completion of ongoing projects within SESAR2020. EUROCONTROL currently leads CORUS-XUAM, a two-year project encompassing very large-scale urban air mobility (UAM) demonstrations and definition of a Concept of Operations (ConOps) that is due completion at the end of 2022. It builds on an earlier ConOps development by CORUS under SESAR 2020 wave 1, which was also led by EUROCONTROL. The latest programme includes six demonstration campaigns in Belgium, France, Germany, UK, Italy, Spain and Sweden during 2022 and addresses UAS and electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles (eVTOL) operations in urban environments.

In recognition of rapid growth in UAS and Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM), EUROCONTROL is recruiting a UAS Programme Manager who will be responsible for defining and implementing the strategic orientation of the hub’s UAS/UAM programme. The role includes development and leadership of the agency’s programme to define and integrate UAS activities in terms of domain strategy, support to State, research, pre-deployment activities and to coordinate with other agencies as appropriate.

“Air traffic management is traditionally human-centric, whereas U-space is by definition automation-centric,” says Laurent Renou. “So, we need to create a roadmap that enables us to transition from one system to another and still remain safe and efficient.”

European regulations drawn up by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) specifying performance requirements for drone operations come into force in January 2023. Aimed at harmonising UAS operations across the region, EUROCONTROL is supporting States including amongst many others Estonia, Israel and Serbia to meet the new regulations. “Member States come to EUROCONTROL for technical assistance with regulatory compliance and implementation," says Laurent Renou.

Research already underway includes the opening of the Paris Region Drone Centre of Excellence, whose operations centre will be hosted by the EUROCONTROL Innovation Hub in cooperation with Systematic Paris-Region and Thales in December 2022. The centre supports the validation and industrialisation of drone-related activities by bringing onboard the different stakeholders of the drone ecosystem. It features a 40km long drone corridor located over rail and road infrastructure south of Paris in order to test drone use cases in real-life and to validate U-space services. “The Paris Drone Hub is a sandbox to help us learn quickly by experience. We have a huge opportunity to accelerate our work with the Paris Olympic Games taking place in 2024 and better support our member states to develop sandboxes of their own to validate more complex operations," says Laurent Renou.

Next steps

EUROCONTROL is developing harmonisation work packages to support upcoming SESAR demonstrations to test U-space services enabling urban air mobility on a wide scale. Harmonisation is important to EUROCONTROL’s role as coordinator of the European Network of U-space Demonstrators, a European Commission programme which is preparing to publish a repository of best practice and guidance material relating to U-space implementation. “Our role is to make sure every national/local initiative is visible and to identify ways of harmonising the different initiatives.” Laurent Renou hopes some will feature in the SESAR 3 U-space and UAM work programme due to be announced in the 1st quarter of 2023 following the first call for Exploratory and Industrial Research by the SESAR 3 Joint Undertaking released in April 2022. “The broader membership of SESAR 3 – including airlines and new unmanned airspace users – is first and foremost looking for concrete results that will improve their operations,” he adds.

"EUROCONTROL is developing harmonisation work packages to support upcoming SESAR demonstrations to test U-space services on a wide scale"

Cloud services

Transformation of Brétigny’s services includes digitalisation of resources, a process that accelerated during the pandemic. Research work continues to comprise a mixture of remote and in-person activity using physical facilities and cloud services. Over the next 2-5 years, EUROCONTROL is modernising the simulation platform to expand these capabilities and to keep step with the integrated Network Manager (iNM) modernisation programme that features a new digital architecture.

The Innovation Hub expects to procure new simulation equipment and is working with other European facilities to develop cost-effective simulation and validation services under a “community-based approach”. The first components are due to be in place in time for the first SESAR 3 wave 1 validation activity in 2024 as part of the seven-year programme. “There are two reasons to modernise our simulation platform,” explains Laurent Renou. “Firstly, we become more efficient by conducting validation activity remotely via the cloud; and secondly, we need to validate the concepts coming out of SESAR 3 and be able to do this in step with iNM. Our role is to harmonise these developments at the same time as validating this work.”

Digitalisation extends beyond physical infrastructure to include new skill sets and capabilities in automation and artificial intelligence. A recruitment drive launched in 2021 targets expertise in these domains, ready to work with disruptive technologies including uncrewed aerial systems (UAS) and urban air mobility in a sustainable way. By combining these skills with the hub’s recently established agile development cycle, Laurent Renou says EUROCONTROL’s Innovation Hub is well-placed for the challenges that lie ahead.

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