Network Manager develops new concepts to accommodate next generation airspace users

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Space rockets, drones, hypersonic airliners, airships, high altitude platforms, more exotic military aircraft and swarms – the airspace above Europe will be very different in 2035 than now.

How will the Network Manager integrate all these airspace users? Steven Moore, Head of ATM Network Operations, Dragos Tonea, iNEO Manager and Paul O’Reilly, New Entrants Airspace Specialist report.

Europe’s rapidly growing space industry is pushing traditional airspace boundaries and challenging the current status quo. Approximately 17 sites are under development across Europe and North Africa to support commercial operations with Virgin Orbit planning its first departure from Spaceport Cornwall within 12 months, and predicting monthly departures within five years.

But space rockets are not the only new entrants needing to access Europe’s upper airspace. Stratospheric balloons up to 300 m in length and capable of staying aloft for months at a time provide connectivity and surveillance services; fixed wing solar-powered craft offer high-quality telecommunications; hypersonic passenger transport and military craft add new operational concepts; while airships provide disaster relief, cargo and passenger services. Ensuring these new platforms can safely use the airspace alongside manned aviation is the focus of the Integration of New Entrants into European ATM Network Operations (iNEO) project within the EUROCONTROL Network Manager Operations Directorate.

Dragos Tonea, iNEO Manager, says iNEO provides a “one-stop-shop” to manage all aspects including new entrants’ operational needs as well as interfacing with external partners and research programmes.

“Air  Traffic  Management  (ATM)  is  being  asked  to  play  a  role  in  a  bigger  global  game  when  it  comes to commercial space. This massive market is not linked to  the  traditional  aviation  market  and  has  resources  that  dwarf the ATM sector.”

Dragos Tonea Manager iNEO

iNEO’s work extends to all future airspace users, including small Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) operating at very low altitudes, Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) flying above commercial airspace, supersonic and hypersonic craft.

“We need to make sure every new entrant in the future will be included in the European network plan, we need to bring them into the planning process.”

Developing relevant infrastructure, involving industry, securing military cooperation and addressing contingency management are priority items for EUROCONTROL Head of ATM Network Operations, Steven Moore

''All of EUROCONTROL’s 41 member states plus associate members Israel and Morocco have to engage, to a greater or lesser extent, and give permission where relevant for these companies to operate in their airspace''.

Steven Moore Head of ATM Network Operations EUROCONTROL

The work includes understanding how new entrants will operate and working out how to cooperate effectively with them.

“Collaboration at planning stage is important to achieve as close to a synonymous approach for all as possible.”

Procedures and protocols

The aim is to design common procedures to provide new-to-market operators with a clear view of what they need to do to gain access. EUROCONTROL Network Directors of Operations (NDOP) working group, the body that sits between the Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) and member states, has started to review process changes needed in areas most affected by the growing commercial space sector with major actors such as Spain, Portugal, France and the UK already actively engaged.

The Network Manager (NM) is also examining performance and security requirements of its external interfaces. These need to support data exchange with national space agencies and commercial operators not tied to existing state-managed or military standards. EUROCONTROL New Entrants Airspace Specialist, Paul O’Reilly is engaging with these entities to define operating parameters and vehicle characteristics.

''We  are  talking  with  the  Portuguese,  Norwegian,  UK  and  Swedish   space   agencies   and   several   operators   including   Virgin  Orbital,  Black  Arrow,  SaxaVord  Spaceport  in  Scotland  as  well  as  airship  operators  including  Obelisk  in  Germany.''

Paul O'Reilly New Entrants Airspace Specialist EUROCONTROL

With eight space sites in the UK, two in Germany and one in each of Sweden, Norway, Spain, Italy and the Azores, building good communications will be key to accommodating their navigational needs in commercial airspace.

EUROCONTROL and the European Space Agency (ESA) are part-way along this road under an existing Memorandum of Cooperation, an agreement that could be amplified to include communication protocols to support tactical exchange of data. As exchanges are also likely outside European borders – for example overseas commercial space operators launching in the Atlantic directly impact traffic flows in Europe – managing the quality, origin and convenance of any data is essential for its inclusion in decision-making.

A model for higher airspace

NM is also reviewing its strategic role. The NM Operations Centre (NMOC) balances capacity supply and demand for commercial aircraft up to Flight Level 600 (FL600), supporting the operations of 68 individual control centres.

''One of our key objectives is to optimise the airspace organisation that will underpin future high altitude operations,” says Dragos Tonea.
“We have a huge opportunity to learn from the lessons of the past. Putting a whole new class of users at the core of service provision and operating in a more unified manner to provide a continuum of upper airspace would send the message that Europe is open for business for new entrants.”

The concept of a European Upper Flight Information Region (EUIR) introduced in the Airspace Architecture Study published by Europe’s airspace modernisation research arm SESAR in the 2019 is a potential template for Higher Airspace Traffic Management (HATM).

SESAR is co-funding another project addressing new entrants, including High Altitude Platform Systems (HAPS), that will also feed into the development of an ICAO global framework for global harmonised higher airspace operations. Coordinated by EUROCONTROL, Europe’s Concept for Higher Airspace Operation (ECHO) project is due to release a concept of operations for safe, efficient and scalable higher airspace operations in 2022. The consortium includes key players from industry (Dassault Aviation, Airbus, ThalesAlenia Space), strategic partners (ENAC, DGAC/DSNA, ENAV) and leading research organisations (DLR, ONERA, CIRA, ENAC).

“Our role in the context of ECHO is to make sure there is an operational level playing field for new entrants, and we develop future-proof solutions for the benefit of the entire European network,” says the project’s operational lead Dragos Tonea.
“We shouldn’t assume the classic way of managing traffic is the only solution that could be envisaged for higher airspace.”

In the meantime, NM handles new entrants on an ad hoc basis with existing procedures. Much like a military mission, NM creates the equivalent of a danger area or safety envelope around a new entrant for the duration of its flight in commercial airspace. As the number and type of vehicles continue to increase, this becomes increasingly complex with potential adverse economic impact on existing commercial traffic. A further challenge is the increase in space debris, often with low windows of accuracy, re-entering the airspace. NM Crisis Coordination and Management unit works closely with the EU Space Surveillance and Tracking (EUSST) agency and follows readily available information from many sources as soon as it becomes available. “We would like to predict more accurately where the problem is going to be,” says Steven Moore, adding the amount of space debris re-entering is due to triple by 2026.

“We are applying machine learning and artificial intelligence to better understand the change to the statistical risks associated with this.”

Real-time information

A more mature space market in the US has seen the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) develop a Space Data Integrator (SDI) software tool that automates delivery of vehicle-related data to the FAA’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center in Virginia. First used in June 2021 for SpaceX Transponder’s launch, SDI helps the FAA to manage the airspace more dynamically and minimise the impact on other airspace users. The agency says it has reduced the length of airspace closures from an average of more than four hours per launch to just more than two hours. NM believes there is a strong case for a dedicated space desk in NM operations room modelled on the US solution.

NM is evaluating opportunities to develop a European solution – an initiative that stands to benefit from the existing Memorandum of Cooperation between EUROCONTROL and the FAA. The German research agency DLR has also begun exploratory research into the integration of space and air traffic data in Europe, supported by a separate MoC with the FAA signed in 2019 which aims “to advance commercial space transportation solutions”.

Dragos Tonea says:“The conversation is just starting at our end. We need to make sure the technical solution matches the environment. Some NMOC competencies are similar to the Command Centre but, given the specificities of the European ATM environment, plenty are firmly under responsibility of states and ANSPs including civil-military interfaces.”

He says the Commission’s European Space Traffic Management (EUSTM) programme launched in February 2021 is just one crucial development relevant for this work.

“Any solution has to operate as part of a wider ecosystem that incorporates aviation and space.”

Development of a space data tool falls within EUROCONTROL’s broader digital transformation programme and 10-year integrated NM (iNM) modernisation project launched in 2019. This aims to provide the foundational enterprise architecture and flexible interfaces needed for NM to evolve.

Steven Moore explains: “NM is taking this step by step and involving the top experts in this discussion. You can’t quantify the value of sharing and understanding very complex operational and technical issues in monetary terms, but over the course of last 20-30 years this approach has been essential to building European ATM architecture.”

He adds that ATM is being asked to play a role in a bigger global game when it comes to commercial space.

“There is a massive market out there with tremendous resources behind it which is not linked to the traditional aviation market and the value of these resources is driving ATM development.”

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