Article

A time to innovate

Andreas Boschen

Andreas Boschen is the Executive Director of the SESAR3 Joint Undertaking and talks about the need for industry to adapt, transform and innovate.

There is no doubt that we are living in unprecedented times.

In aviation and air traffic management, this was already the case back in 2019 when Europe’s airspace management system hit its capacity limits. Now with post-COVID conditions, climate change and a war in Europe, the industry is dealing with a potent mixture of disruption, volatility and uncertainty combined with intense pressure to adapt and transform its operations for the better.

Where does innovation fit into all of this? Einstein was not the first and will surely not be the last to observe that in the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity. A chance to problem-solve, to do things differently, to unite around a common purpose, and above all, to drive meaningful change. In other words, innovate. Innovation and aviation are inseparable in my mind. Since the dawn of our industry, we have seen many leaps of faith, which have resulted in pioneering new developments. However, innovation can be the first to take a hit when financial and human resources are tight, as is the case for many aviation stakeholders right now.

Luckily, we have safeguarded these important resources through the SESAR (Single European Sky ATM Research) 3 Joint Undertaking (SESAR 3 JU), which started its operations in late 2021 as a European public-private partnership . With our 55 founding members covering the entire aviation value chain including drones, I believe we have the creative intelligence and collective commitment to rise to the challenges facing air traffic management and aviation. Between now and 2030, we will invest EUR 1.6 billion to accelerate, through research and innovation, the delivery of an inclusive, resilient and sustainable Digital European Sky. Building on the achievements of the preceding programmes, we want to drive an ambitious programme to make Europe’s aviation infrastructure fit for the digital age, while offering quick wins to contribute towards the sector's net zero ambitions.

Understanding the nature of, and then addressing, the challenges that loom over our industry demands action by multiple and diverse stakeholders across the aviation value chain. We have expanded the membership of the SESAR 3 JU to include, for the first time, operators of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), the direct membership of airspace users, as well as airports beyond the major hubs. In many ways, the membership reflects the diversity of today’s aviation landscape but also signals the growing will of stakeholders to join forces in order to deliver change.

Crises are time-critical. They require speedy reaction. In addition to a more diverse and enlarged membership, we have put in place mechanisms within the new programme to accelerate the innovation lifecycle and fast-track the most promising solutions through large-scale demonstrators, to encourage market uptake by emerging pioneers in the industry. The aviation sector has to accelerate its transition to a sustainable and digital future, and we believe that these structural changes to how we innovate should allow for greater agility, speed and ultimately the digital transformation on which we are all banking.

Illustration showing SESAR Joint Undertaking key working areas

Collaboration is the linchpin to innovation. No single organisation or country can address alone the challenges ahead, nor make the transformational changes that are necessary. It requires close cooperation between all the stakeholders that contribute to air traffic management, from the European and national decision-makers that regulate it, the organisations and staff that operate it, to the academic and industry stakeholders that research, design and manufacture it. This is where the role of the SESAR 3 JU comes into play.

Through the institutional partnership model, we have the means to coordinate all the stakeholders, pooling the critical mass of resources and expertise needed. We are stepping up our cooperation with regulatory and standardisation bodies, notably the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and EUROCAE, in order to accelerate solutions into implementation, while working closely with the SESAR Deployment Manager. Also critical will be creating new synergies between research and innovation activities at European and national level, in order to avoid any overlaps or duplication of effort. The newly established States' Representative Group will facilitate these synergies, to connect Member States' activities with progress made by the JU in line with the EU’s top priorities: the "Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy", the "European Green Deal" and a "Europe fit for the digital age".

We can distil these priorities into two words: decarbonisation and digitalisation. Decarbonisation because emissions savings can be achieved in the short term by introducing new technologies and procedures into air traffic management.

We will investigate new greener taxiing techniques that could reduce aircraft fuel consumption on the ground by between 50% and 85%, and the use of satellite-based technologies to reduce the carbon footprint of flights and aircraft arriving into airports. CO2 is not the only area of concern; evidence suggests that aviation’s non-CO2 emissions are in fact having a greater impact on the climate than CO2. Research shows that rerouting aircraft around climate-sensitive areas can dramatically reduce the warming effect of these emissions, so we are looking at models and applications that can support such operations.

"No single organisation or country can address alone the challenges ahead, nor make the transformational changes that are necessary"

Digitalisation because with advances in technology, we can make a fundamental shift from today's bespoke and physically-based systems, towards more modular, service-oriented applications, enabling greater data exchange and connectivity between air and ground, air traffic control centres, airports and other actors in the transport system.

Over the coming years, we will explore multiple technology pathways, from satellite technologies, supported by EGNOS/ Galileo, and virtualisation, to artificial intelligence and augmented reality, in order to develop solutions that can really bring about the transformation change that we are looking to achieve. One standout innovation which we will continue to advance will be virtual centres, which we see as a real game-changer for making air traffic management more resilient to uncertainty and disruption. By unbundling services that make up air traffic control and decoupling them from the physical location of the control centre and the controller working position (CWP), air navigation service providers can pool more easily services and resources, and in doing so increase capacity while improving cost efficiency. Sharing also means being able to deal more flexibly with traffic fluctuations, virtually allocating controllers and resources where and when needed, and scaling capacity up or down according to demand.

It is no surprise then to find decarbonisation and digitalisation at the heart of our new Digital European Sky programme  and its nine flagships.

Group photo of SESAR Joint Undertaking signatories

"Our aim is to accelerate the digital transformation so our initial focus will be showing at scale the benefits of a number of quick wins and engaging with stakeholders"

The beauty of the SESAR 3 JU is that the partnership is building on results from the 70 projects within our legacy research and innovation programme (SESAR 2020). Altogether, they have delivered more than 150 digital solutions, many of which are already in deployment. The successful outcomes of these projects will be showcased at Airspace World in Geneva  (8-10 March) at a dedicated SESAR Showcase theatre. Considering the urgency of the situation, our aim is to accelerate the digital transformation so our initial focus will be showing at scale, through very large-scale demonstrators, the benefits of a number of quick wins and engaging with stakeholders to get moving on their implementation.

In this respect, in 2022, 5 Digital Sky Demonstrators got going  thanks to funding from the Connecting Europe Facility managed by the European Climate, Infrastructure and Environment Executive Agency (CINEA). The demonstrators are a key tool to support the SESAR vision of delivering the Digital European Sky, matching the ambitions of the European Green Deal and the "Europe fit for the digital age" initiatives. With combined funding to the tune of EUR 45 million between now and 2025, the selected projects aim to accelerate the market uptake of SESAR Solutions for greener aviation and urban air mobility. In addition, under our first calls for exploratory and industrial research, we have selected 48 projects for a total investment of EUR 350 million  covering all nine flagships. We are now preparing the grant agreements with the selected projects, so that they can start in the near future. These project consortia will be tasked with fostering new and innovative ideas, as well as fast-tracking the uptake of innovations across Europe as of 2023. More calls will be opened between now and 2027, as the programme progresses.

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