ATM’s need for artificial intelligence

Eamonn Brennan

Editorial by
Eamonn Brennan 
Director General

Air traffic management (ATM) is under great pressure at present. The drivers of the industry are safety, capacity, cost of the service, efficiency (direct routings at an optimal level) and the environment. The relative importance of these fluctuates over time – a few years ago, cost was the main influence on policy; now it is capacity, but with all the other drivers close behind and eager not to be forgotten.

At the same time traffic is increasing (11 million flights in 2018), extreme weather events are becoming more common and we also see airspace closures – typically on the fringes of Europe, or even further away (such as in Pakistan) but all having an impact on traffic flows in the European network, which itself is becoming more inter-connected and more inter-dependent. A staffing problem at one control centre, a thunderstorm or a blocked runway at a busy airport can create disturbances to traffic patterns hundreds of kilometres away, like ripples from a stone thrown in a lake.

And if by chance we have not one stone in our lake, but two or three at the same time, then the impact of those ripples becomes exponentially more difficult to predict.

For me, this is a good example of why we need to embrace artificial intelligence (AI) and to explore how it can help us in ATM. So this edition of Skyway has some very practical examples of what AI actually means for ATM. These include improving the accuracy and speed of existing tasks, such as processing 30,000 flight plans every day and minimising the need for human intervention. We also need to improve the predictability of traffic – looking outside our borders and also using new data flows from airports to find out where the network may become overloaded.

For the future, we are moving towards a more interactive approach with aircraft trajectories being updated in real time to adapt to changes. It is closer than one might think and it will certainly mean a step forward in the capabilities of our systems to cope with the flood of data and to make intelligent decisions. This will be essential if we are to handle the levels of traffic predicted, as well as to cope with the new types of traffic, such as drones, that are on the horizon.

However, it isn’t all about the technology. EUROCONTROL is a great believer that the kind of change needed to ensure successful uptake of AI should happen from the inside. As part of that, we have recently launched the European Aviation Artificial Intelligence High Level Group, bringing together representatives from both public and private sectors including EU bodies, international organisations in aviation and aviation industry representatives. Working together, the group is committed to develop a roadmap and practical recommendations to accelerate the uptake of AI in our sector and make sure that we can harness its potential for the good of our industry.

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More articles await in the full issue of
Skyway Autumn/Winter 2019


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