Article

A new type of aviation innovation: fast, agile and targeted

Laurent Renou

The world of aviation innovation is rapidly changing and EUROCONTROL's Innovation Hub is at the forefront of supporting new stakeholder-driven research initiatives, reports Laurent Renou, Head of Air Transport Innovation.

In November 2022, the EUROCONTROL Innovation Hub organised the Air Transport Innovation MeetUp, bringing together innovation leaders across the European aviation ecosystem to share their research experiences and collaborate on new programmes.

"Rapid prototyping and stakeholder collaboration are key elements in the Agency's Innovation Hub EATIN strategy"

Projects were explained, successes and failures highlighted, synergies and partnerships forged to reduce duplication and refocus activities on those projects which offered the most successful outcomes for airspace users, air navigation services providers (ANSPs), airports and others.

"It is an integral part of the EUROCONTROL Air Transport Innovation Network (EATIN), which started almost three years ago, to complement the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) programme, and address the immediate operational needs of stakeholders," said Laurent Renou, Head of Air Transport Innovation at EUROCONTROL. "This is a very agile six-month process where the operational stakeholders propose their challenges and prioritise among themselves the most promising ones. Last November, we launched the fifth cycle, bringing together airports, airlines and ANSPs; six projects were selected."

Rapid prototyping and stakeholder collaboration are key elements in the Agency’s Innovation Hub EATIN strategy (see box "Results of EATIN activity"). Although supporting the SESAR programme remains the main focus of EUROCONTROL's Innovation Hub, this new work programme is an important catalyst in helping accelerate the development of niche aviation stakeholder ideas from concept to operational prototypes.

Before an individual stakeholder can pitch an idea for Innovation Hub support it confers with other stakeholders to see if this is a generic problem which needs solving. So pitches represent the needs of several organisations, with typically between four to seven operational stakeholders joining one project. This does not preclude others from joining or gaining from it – what the Agency calls an "Easy In, Easy Out" approach – but the earlier proponents join, the closer the solution will be to their operational needs.

"We've seen partnerships come together where a project has been pitched by an airport but two or three airlines have also decided to join," said Laurent Renou. "Twice a year we organise open pitch sessions online, in March and October. We then do the feasibility assessment, which is quite a thorough exercise. Based on the topic proposed, EUROCONTROL assigns an Expert Panel, which evaluates the feasibility of those proposals, and we develop what we call an Innovation Trifecta which includes a feasibility, desirability and viability assessment. We do not want to be managers, we are the doers, so the teams are agile and very light. We focus on producing tangible solutions."

According to Peter Choroba, Head of Innovation Programme at EUROCONTROL: "The target is to go from idea, prototype development up to testing in an operational environment – bringing the prototype into live trials within six to 12 months. We develop the prototype, rather than an industrial product." Since its launch, the new innovation strategy has gathered increasing interest from across the aviation value chain and by the start of 2023 had launched 24 new projects. "There are many means of innovating," said Peter Choroba. "The operational stakeholders work with local start-ups, with venture capitalists, with universities to present on how they innovate, and we put ourselves in listening mode so we can better adapt our innovation service offering. The innovation world is rapidly changing, and we must adapt as well. In the past, we were doing primarily top-down research, not working closely with operational stakeholders. We reversed our approach since end-users needs faster solutions."

“"We joined the EATIN initiative because we wanted to speed up innovation," said Marie Carré, Manager Operations Research and Air Traffic Management at Swiss International Air Lines, "especially for smaller projects which really targeted our needs. We wanted to support and benefit from the EATIN developments through these six-month partner-tailored projects. EATIN is doing a lot of work on predictions, for which we do not have the resources nor the right data to look across the whole range of predictions from all stakeholders. Thanks to EATIN, we benefit from prediction models based on very good historical and live data sources and built iteratively thanks to the expert knowledge of all involved stakeholders. This is one of the strengths of EATIN."

"The product developed within this project uses machine-learning techniques to predict potential curfew infringements for a given flight at a given airport; this has now been integrated into EUROCONTROL's MIRROR platform"

In May 2022 the first face-to-face demonstration meeting began, where over 100 people saw the outcomes of the research and had a chance to talk with the teams about the projects – before they were handed over for operational deployment.

Unsurprisingly, most of the proponents for new innovation areas come from private sector organisations rather than public entities. In the post Covid era, airlines and airports in particular are looking at new digital solutions to deliver better services, save costs and optimise revenue streams.

"So many solutions are linked to reducing delays from weather disruptions, for example, where there is a huge cost impact for airlines, passengers, as well as negative PR," said Peter Choroba.

Another initiative called "Innovation MeetUp initiative" was launched last November. It has been a particular success for the Agency's Innovation Hub.

"More than 40 stakeholders have sent us their feedback on the event, giving suggestions about what we could do next year," said Peter Choroba. "We organised innovation sessions for airlines, airports, ANSPs and public organisations. We also wanted to include regulators and other research agencies so we invited ICAO, the UK Civil Aviation Authority, IATA, DLR, NLR and SESAR3JU. Project leaders outlined their innovation story, talking about aspirations and bottlenecks and what they could do better. Together, we worked on an agenda – identifying what we should be doing together and how we should work."

EUROCONTROL offers aviation innovators a neutral place to share their innovation experiences – processes, content, successes and failures.

"Failure is also an interesting result because it means there is no need for the others to try it," said Laurent Renou. "So ANSPs, airports and airlines get a unique opportunity to talk with each other about their innovations initiative and they learn from each other. We want to create an open and stimulating environment where these users could freely focus on their needs and exchange on solutions."

"EUROCONTROL offers aviation innovators a neutral place to share their innovation experiences – processes, content, successes and failures"

Results of EATIN activity

There have been four cycles of research deliverables since the start of the EATIN programme. Examples of completed programmes include:

  • Curfew collaborative management – The product developed within this project uses machine-learning techniques to predict potential curfew infringements for a given flight at a given airport; this has now been integrated into EUROCONTROL's MIRROR platform.
  • Dashboard of airborne delays – This project, initiated by airlines, aims at supporting fuel planning by providing information regarding airborne delays at arrival (i.e., in the terminal area) resulting from holding and sequencing.
  • Forecast of the ATFM delay evolution for a regulated flight – This project has developed a prototype tool which uses AI to better forecast delays. It provides airlines with a set of indicators, including ATFM delay evolution trend and predicted delay, that should deliver economic, operational and passenger experience benefits.
  • Optimisation of airport resources with more accurate traffic and passenger prediction – The objective of the project was to improve the operational performance through the development of a predictive tool providing pre-tactical and tactical predictions of in-block and off-block time deviations supported by predictions on passenger demand (load factors).
  • Predicted Runway in Use – Driven by the requirements of participating airspace users, the project identified operational benefits to having advance notice of the predicted runway in use and runway configuration at an arrival airport.
  • Runway allocation - minimising CO2 – This project, initiated by Paris CDG airport, aims at going a step further than current operations, with a runway allocation minimising CO2 emission for both the airborne and the taxi parts.
  • Verification of military aircraft performance for GNSS approaches – This project has developed a tool that uses AI to verify the performance of military aircraft during the approach and landing phase of the flight, in order to demonstrate the compliance of military capabilities on board the aircraft, namely GPS Precise Positioning System (GPS PPS) receivers.
  • KORI - Knock-on regulation impact – Due to a late arrival of the previous leg, a flight can suffer a knock-on delay, and worse, it may be then pushed into a regulation, giving it an additional delay. Using real time data, KORI will calculate the total delay that will affect the flight and explore the delays that would be incurred using alternative routes.
  • OPTT – Machine-learning prediction of turnaround times – The OPTT (Optimisation of Turnaround Times) project uses machine learning to predict turnaround duration at CDM airports.

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