"New, radical solutions will be needed to meet our future demands"

New, radical solutions will be needed to meet our future demands

"Research institutes have a vital role to play in reducing the risks for industrial partners to implement crucial innovative solutions. This will make us more resilient and provide better prospects for future generations"

— Michel Peters, Chief Executive Officer of Royal Netherlands Aerospace Centre (NLR) and Vice-Chair of the Association of European Research Establishments in Aeronautics (EREA).

Even before the aviation sector had been able to recover from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, a new challenge loomed as Russian troops invaded Ukraine in February. Soon after a humanitarian tragedy unfolded. By the signing of an association agreement, which came into force in September 2017, the European Union committed itself to close cooperation with Ukraine, a policy strengthened by the condemnation by many nations of Russia’s act of violence against a democratic country. A renewed unity and solidarity emerged in Europe.

Although disruptive social events such as pandemics and wars unleash profound effects on our everyday life, crises demonstrate our resilience, which unfolds in many ways. For instance, on European soil the response to COVID-19 resulted in a relatively fast availability of effective vaccines. Another recent example is the unanimous and swiftly adopted sanctions the EU imposed on Russia. This had a significant impact on the aviation sector and included a ban on access to European airspace and airports for all Russian airlines, and eventually also the closure of Russian airspace in response to the sanctions by the West. Who would have thought just a few months ago that this would be our new reality?

A more gradually perceptible disruption we are all facing is human-induced global climate change. A few days after the unprovoked Russian invasion, IPCC published the finalised second part of the Sixth Assessment Report Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability . The research confidently states that the magnitude and rate of climate change and associated risks depend strongly on near-term mitigation and adaptation actions, and projected adverse impacts and related losses and damages escalate with every increment of global warming. In short: we can respond effectively to the crisis when we act fast enough with effective measures.

But with the ambition of a climate-neutral aviation in 2050, how will the European aviation industry actually recover and develop once it is no longer subjected to COVID measures and its aftermath and the conflict in Ukraine is, hopefully soon, over?

Valley of death

Due to unexpected rapidly changing circumstances on top of our long-term ambitions, incremental improvements may no longer suffice. Challenges today might have become so critical that new, radical solutions will be needed to meet our future demands to remain as flexible as possible while aiming for sustainable air transport. However, disruptive innovations do not come without a price. The transformation of a sparkling idea into an impactful solution takes cooperation. Investment in potentially disruptive innovations is risky, especially with many uncertainties lurking.

As a member of the association of European Research Establishments in Aeronautics (EREA), Royal NLR strongly believes we all need to have an eye for ideas that matter and break barriers when needed to bridge this so-called valley of death. Research establishments not only have the skills and know-how but they are also well equipped with state-of-the-art facilities dedicated to aviation. This enables them to assist in a smooth transition from exploratory research into more industrial research and eventually further into demonstrators.

Research and innovation programmes and European partnerships are designed as innovation pipelines to facilitate these transformation of ideas into tangible solutions. For instance, SESAR (Single European Sky ATM Research) 3 Joint Undertaking, aiming for a Digital European Sky, accelerates the market uptake of innovative solutions, acting as a catalyst to speed up Europe’s green and digital transitions – the so-called twin transitions – and makes European industry more resilient and competitive.

Unity and Commitment

During the last century commercial aviation has enabled people to travel all over the world. Boundaries were pushed and physical obstacles were overcome. With unity and commitment we will be able to keep it this way, for now and for generations to come.

The European Commission and many European countries see the pandemic as an opportunity to accelerate their ambition to become more sustainable. In April the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) completed its scientific trilogy. To limit global warming this third report made clear that we need major transitions in energy usage. This will involve a reduction in fossil fuel use, widespread electrification, improved energy efficiency, and use of alternative fuels (such as hydrogen).

The challenging world we are living in clearly demands a large amount of flexibility from all of us. Research centres contribute to the overall innovation pipeline to introduce valuable and promising innovations when needed to anticipate unclear or unforeseen needs.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of the members of EREA.

SESAR innovation pipeline 2021

The SESAR research and innovation programme is designed as an innovation pipeline, made up of exploratory research, industrial research and validation and very large-scale demonstrations/demonstrators.
(Source: SESAR Innovation pipeline 2021)

Green ATM

Launched in June 2020, the SESAR CREATE (an acronym for the European project ‘Innovative operations and climate and weather models to improve ATM resilience and reduce impacts’) is developing and testing new methodologies for the optimisation of aircraft trajectories to minimise climate and environmental impact, while becoming more resilient to weather phenomena, benefitting from advanced weather forecasting models.

Due to its fundamentally innovative characteristics this is considered an exploratory research project developing a new integrated concept of operations related to a more sustainable ATM, which addresses multi-aircraft environmentally scored weather-resilient optimised trajectories. The project is developing a method that quantifies CO2 and non-CO2 aircraft emissions along the aircraft trajectories, classifying the impact in and outside of climate sensitive areas, such as contrail-sensitive regions. Although the understanding of contrail occurrence and persistence still requires more research, it already seems that this phenomenon has a big climate impact. To anticipate this, an environmental performance metric can support ATM network trajectory optimisations by identifying where and when persistent contrail formation is most likely to occur. This performance metric could then be used, taking into account the ATM demand-capacity balancing aspects, to provide solutions for climate-impact mitigation re-routings during operation, e.g. by allowing aircraft to fly at a higher or lower altitude where the aircraft exhaust gases do not trigger persistent contrail formation.

Augmented reality for Tower ATC

Air navigation service providers (ANSPs) face difficult choices every day in managing air traffic at –and between– Europe’s busy airports. They have to balance all kinds of aspects such as safety, punctuality and costs. For this a technology push such as augmented reality (AR) can reduce workload for air traffic controllers. In recent years AR has become one of the major focus points of user interface development. With a rapid increase in computing power and advancements in software and hardware applications, devices are now portable, lightweight and capable of integrating complex 3D displays into the real world.

The SESAR project Digital Technologies for Tower (DTT) dived into this novel concept to gain new insights regarding the use of technology. Due to the ATM-dedicated development and application this is considered an industrial research project. In this case real-time simulation experiments were conducted with a focus on the use of an AR device for attention capturing and attention guidance for tower controllers tested on the NARSIM (NLR Air Traffic Control Research Simulator) Tower platform, the NLR in-house developed environment for highly realistic real-time simulations of tower operations. The solutions developed by the project are expected to positively contribute to safety and increase situational awareness and controllers' productivity.

Integrated SESAR solutions

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The third stage of the innovation pipeline (the demonstrator stage) tests innovations to show their benefit in real operations, bringing them closer to deployment. The project ITARO (Integrated TMA, Airport and Runway Operations) plans to demonstrate on a larger scale several SESAR TMA, Airport and Runway solutions simultaneously, which individually have been shown to deliver efficiencies, both operationally and environmentally, but never in a combined way. For instance, in ITARO solutions for arrivals like 3D fixed approach routes, Continuous Descent Operations (CDO), Interval Management (IM), Time Based Separation (TBS), RECAT-EU Pair-Wise Separation (PWS) and Minimum Radar Separation (MRS) are incorporated in new procedures and validated using real time simulations in NLR’s NARSIM Radar simulator.

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