AI has been an integral part of the European Commission’s Digital Single Market Strategy since 2017, supported by €1.5 billion co-funding under the Horizon 2020 programme from 2018 to 2020. This was followed by a roadmap and establishment of the European AI Alliance in 2018 to put Europe firmly on the path to becoming a leader in the AI revolution.
EUROCONTROL held an inaugural Forum on Aviation and AI in early 2019 which brought together key players and served as the launch point for a European AI Aviation Network. The activity is overseen by Directorate European CivilMilitary Aviation (DECMA) Director Philippe Merlo
“Our first role is to bring all the stakeholders together to enable an exchange of views. We want to define a roadmap with our stakeholders which defines our priorities and most important projects.” EUROCONTROL is a facilitator in this process, with no vested interests, Merlo says, “trusted for our neutrality and our expertise”.
The process is part of a wider activity underway which sets out to deliver an integrated solution coordinated by the Commission. EUROCONTROL plays a central role at a technical level within the Commission’s strategic initiative. Philippe Merlo points out the Agency already manages large quantities of ATM data in its role as Network Manager (NM) and this offers many opportunities for machine learning and AI. For example, the repository includes flight plans, radar tracks, meteorological data, safety incidents and special events, all of which can be interlinked to achieve a higher level of safety. With only a small percentage currently used, Merlo says the amount of relevant information extracted could increase dramatically with the help of AI: “We believe we can develop conflict prediction tools and complexity assessment tools which can mitigate risky situations much earlier in a flight.” The activity will extend beyond safety and capacity to address environmental factors and cost efficiency
An important first step towards achieving this level of connection is to complete implementation of the System Wide Information Management (SWIM) network as envisaged under Single European Sky (SES) legislation. This network interconnects all the ATM players – from airlines to airports and ANSPs – with seamless access and interchange of information between providers and users of ATM data and services. Simply sharing data in the first place brings huge benefit to operators in terms of better planning and collaborative decision making.
“Once you have the data, you are in a position to take the second step and apply AI to analyse this large volume of data and identify opportunities to increase efficiency,” says Philippe Merlo.
The first applications are air traffic control planning and flow management, where EUROCONTROL trials already show 30% improvement in trajectory prediction. Work to date looks at where safety can be improved, and delays reduced. Examples include the development of conflict and complexity prediction tools which can anticipate a risky situation based on past data, and can lead to mitigation much earlier in the flight.
“We already have tools which analyse trajectories automatically, can detect conflict risks and help air traffic controllers to avoid errors. Human errors are rare, thanks to controllers’ training and skills, however, they remain the biggest safety risk in ATC, and this technology can trigger an alert and present what-if scenarios.”
Philippe Merlo says environmental impact could be included in the future to expand the application to support optimised flight trajectories, and the agency is also investigating the airport environment where the technology could help to improve navigation around the airport surface.
Satellite navigation is another area where early research shows AI can add value. Satellite signals can be affected by atmospheric conditions which change with the seasonal equinox cycle. AI technology is being used to identify and isolate instances of ionosphere error to improve the prediction and likely impact of this phenomena.
Another promising area for the future digital environment is strengthening safeguards around cyber security. Philippe Merlo says AI can play a role in “monitoring the flow of data between your own ATM system and that of your neighbours. It becomes easier to identify abnormal data flows, or messages coming from unknown sources, to show where there might be a security breach.”
Within the framework of SES ATM Research (SESAR), EUROCONTROL is applying AI to support the latest re-categorisation wake vortex separations applied to ensure safe separation between aircraft on approach.