Pandemic refocuses, does not slow down, innovative ATM research

Laurent Renou

EUROCONTROL has refocused its research activity to support short-term recovery and long-term resilience, says Laurent Renou, Head of Air Transport Innovation at the EUROCONTROL Experimental Centre.

The industry was already under pressure to meet environmental targets set out in the Commission’s Green Deal at the end of 2019, including a carbon neutral environment by 2050, and many government aid packages issued during the pandemic prioritise this activity.

At the same time, Laurent Renou warns against slowing down during the traffic downturn. “The industry does not expect the same level of traffic for a while so there is less urgency to meet capacity demand. However, in terms of research and development, we will need to work on these projects because traffic will be back in the future and it will take three to four years to address these issues.”

This is especially relevant to Laurent Renou who took over the leadership of EEC in March 2020 after 15 years in airspace management roles with Air France, and previously as a consultant for DSNA and Paris Aéroport. “When the ATM system was not able to provide the capacity needed in 2019, the trajectory was moved to where spare capacity was available. This disrupted the trajectory and increased the carbon footprint. Now we are looking at providing capacity where the demand is.” Dynamic airspace configuration and the virtual centre are among priority projects submitted by EUROCONTROL in SESAR Wave 3.

“There are short-term solutions to deliver added value to the community (…) and we are doing everything we can to accelerate these to support deployment as soon as possible.”

Faster deployment

“We are focused on accelerating project maturity with a goal of achieving Level 3 validation (V3) by the end of 2022, ready to start industrialisation by 2023 and deployment in 2024 or 2025,” says Renou. This quickening of the transition from design and development to deployment and integration is a feature of the Airspace Architecture Study (AAS) commissioned by the Commission in 2019. Specifically, this recommends establishing a “network of digital European sky demonstrators targeting early movers to accelerate SESAR delivery”. Renou is optimistic that significant progress will be achieved on a virtual centre within the framework of SESAR Wave 3 activity including the implementation of a digital sky demonstrator of the virtual centre fielded by two ANSPs at the beginning of SESAR 3.

Speeding up the path to deployment includes shortening the development cycle. “The current situation demonstrates the difficulty of anticipating the world beyond five years,” says Laurent Renou. “Technology used 10 years ago is now obsolete and technology is moving faster and faster. It is good to have a long-term vision, but the innovation cycle has to be closer to other industry practices. Shortening the air traffic management (ATM) modernisation cycle is one of the key challenges.”

Achieving this will depend upon on early participation by other industry players. Safety assessments need to start during initial phases of development and ANSPs, industry, airspace users, airports and research institutes need to be involved in the activity. “SESAR brings the added value of partnership to European research. There has to be a holistic view from the outset to understand not only the purpose of a new function but how it fits into the whole system.”

"It is good to have a long-term vision, but the innovation cycle has to be closer to other industry practices. Shortening the air traffic management modernisation cycle is one of the key challenges."

Safety represents a core activity at Brétigny where a dedicated safety team provides independent and innovative ATM safety services based on experience across the entire safety assurance approach, including ATM and the flight deck domain. The safety team also develops generic safety cases to facilitate local deployment of new concepts or operations.

Among key projects the safety team is participating in the development of EUROCONTROL’s Integrated Risk platform for Europe (IRiS), a web-based framework that hosts a set of barrier-based risk models describing how risk evolves in ATM in a holistic way. IRiS is a joint programme with the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) which uses the same platform to host its Integrated Safety Assessment Model (ISAM). Brétigny supported the EUROCONTROL Network Manager’s (NM’s) development of a roadmap for IRiS industrialisation released in order to ease its deployment at ANSP level.

Innovation labs

Supporting the concept of short-term innovation, EEC is launching a Europe-wide network of innovation laboratories designed to bring innovation closer to the end-user. The initiative marks the start of a series of partnership ventures with universities, research centres, small- and medium-sized enterprises all over Europe. “The idea is to develop solutions that address the needs of the end-user,” says Laurent Renou. “We will listen to these needs and develop solutions based on agile development methodology.”

An ambitious six-month cycle follows a three-step process: connect, build and promote. Connecting with the end-user identifies market need – for example addressing issues from controllers, pilots, dispatchers or airport operations. EUROCONTROL then builds a research team in partnership with the end-user at local level. Development of a prototype solution is then promoted to attract other end-users and increase participation. “A prototype that addresses end-user needs is more likely to be deployed and bring value. It is also more likely to interest multiple parties,” explains Laurent Renou.

EUROCONTROL has engaged with several potential partners and expects to launch the first innovation lab in Q1-2021. Early candidate partners include Air France, Transavia, Swiss, Paris Orly Airport, easyJet and Ryanair, with more anticipated. An innovation lab – for example at Paris Orly – would research specific solutions in partnership with specific end-users and research bodies.

Additional labs in Dublin, Gatwick and Zurich, linked with the Experimental Centre in Brétigny, would start to form a network. “EUROCONTROL shoulders the risk for a prototype to mature sufficiently for an investment decision. Once industrialised, it can be widely used and if developed by a university it could incubate a start-up.”

Renou is calling for a rapid development cycle. The first cycle started last September as a test case. EUROCONTROL has focussed on four topics and will develop prototypes within six months. A showcase event in April 2021 is intended to attract other end-users and start a new prototype development cycle. User needs collected for the test case include:

  • Forecast of the ATC delay evolution for a regulated flight;
  • Improving chance to obtain a direct route;
  • Forecast of holding time at arrival;
  • Airlines flight priority integrated with EUROCONTROL NM system;
  • Curfew collaborative management;
  • European Airport CDM portal.

"Innovation will play a key role in meeting the Commission’s Green Deal targets for European transportation."

The goal is to have 20 or more innovation labs across Europe by the end of 2023, creating a network managed by the Experimental Centre. “The cycle complements the SESAR programme, providing opportunities to feed into Wave 3 from 2023 and giving the programme more agility,” says Laurent Renou.

Sustainable aviation

Innovation will play a key role in meeting the Commission’s Green Deal targets for European transportation and EUROCONTROL’s Experimental Centre is leading a number of projects in this domain. The centre’s large-scale simulation capability has supported implementation of Free Route Airspace (FRA) in many States, and is preparing to carry out some real-time simulations for Turkey’s FRA project. The centre is also supporting implementation of continuous descent and climb operations, with a number of these projects due to start again soon. “We have an opportunity in the next few years to extend Continuous Descent Operations (CDOs), Continuous Climb Operations (CCOs) and FRA while traffic is low, so we can see how they can still be used when traffic returns,” says Laurent Renou.

Learn more about these concepts


Continuous climb and descent operations


Free route airspace

Under Laurent Renou’s leadership, EUROCONTROL is excited to be a key player of the new initiative with airframe and engine manufacturers about to be launched to optimise the integration of new generation aircraft into the airspace. “The added value of EUROCONTROL is to assess the impact of new aircraft on the system in terms of speed, climb rate, descent rate and cruise level to enable the whole system to evolve in the most efficient way,” Renou says. Based on lessons learned during A380 development, EUROCONTROL is engaging with industry players such as Airbus and Safran in early development stages.

Measuring the impact of aviation will allow EUROCONTROL to assess progress, with an emissions dashboard providing greater transparency. Laurent Renou adds: “We are looking at two issues: emissions and noise. We are investigating procedures to reduce noise in collaboration with airports and engine manufacturers.” Among the solutions, EUROCONTROL is exploring displaced runway thresholds and increased glideslope based on widespread use of satellite navigation and landing procedures.

EUROCONTROL plans to work with other research centres and ANSPs with simulation facilities to expand digital capabilities and network opportunities.

This work will be supported by longer-term investment in the Centre’s simulation platforms. In a phased programme expected to start in 2021, the simulation platform is due to be modernised over a five to seven-year period. In addition to upgrading individual components, EUROCONTROL plans to work with other research centres and ANSPs with simulation facilities to expand digital capabilities and network opportunities.

This work will be accompanied by increased activity with the emerging drone industry, where EUROCONTROL already leads a number of research projects to manage the safe integration of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) and Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) in controlled airspace, for example supporting demonstration flights. “The drone industry is growing rapidly and we plan to become a centre of excellence for drones and urban mobility,” says Laurent Renou. “We are already working with the community to help define services and we are cooperating with the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and SESAR Joint Undertaking (SESAR-JU) to provide what the industry needs to develop. There is a need for a validation centre to enable these types of new services to grow.”

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