Interview

Transforming EUROCONTROL Brétigny from an Experimental Centre into an Innovation Hub

Innovation Hub

The launch in September 2021 of EUROCONTROL’s Innovation Hub in Brétigny – as a replacement for the former Experimental Centre – is far more than just a rebranding exercise. It describes a new way of working for the Agency, connecting more closely with end-users to develop a hub which focuses on agile, digital solutions and services that accelerate the uptake of Single European Sky ATM research (SESAR) solutions. Laurent Renou, Head of Air Transport Innovation at EUROCONTROL, describes what changes this will bring to innovative air traffic management in Europe.

How different will the EUROCONTROL Innovation Hub be from the Experimental Centre?

I think we’ll transition from academic research to innovation that delivers value to our stakeholders. With research you increase your knowledge; with innovation you use this knowledge and apply it to solutions that address the needs of the end users. With this transition we will work more closely with our operational end users: air navigation service providers (ANSPs), air traffic controllers, airport operators and airspace users – civil and military.

We are not a centre where we will do everything in-house. We’re a hub where we connect operational stakeholders with innovative initiatives. And this means more and more digital innovation, not necessarily specific to air traffic management (ATM). You can see increasing automation in the road transport sector and we should benefit from this knowledge and learn how to apply it to ATM. We are going to increase our scope by targeting airports and airspace users.

It is clear digitisation will lead to some fundamental technology and institutional challenges for ANSPs. Asking them to replace national ATM infrastructure with a system-wide digital service is a particular challenge. What will your role be in helping to ensure this new way of working will be safe and resilient?

One of the objectives of the SESAR programme is the evolution of ATM systems from nationally-based networks to, potentially, architectures that could be the same for more than one country, making ATM far more cost-effective.

That’s the goal of the Virtual Centre, where some key components could be horizontally delivered, rather than vertically. In this way, digitalisation can be introduced both nationally and transversally.

We could benefit from other industries’ experience in this area, because we are not the only ones doing it.

From the start, we have to define a digital system that is safe and secure by design. EUROCONTROL can help provide this at a national level but also – as the goal of EUROCONTROL is always to build a network capability – across several States so experiences from one country can be shared elsewhere.

We are in discussions with other industries on how this can be done. We will work with research centres in the automobile sector, for example, where autonomous car designs are being developed to be cyber attack-resilient.

In SESAR 2020 we are leading one of the projects working on developing virtualisation capabilities, a key enabler for ATM modernisation. We will finalise the industrial research and then help move it to deployment, as part of the SESAR 3 programme. We are also progressing on trajectory-based operations, which will increasingly rely on digital communication between aircraft and controller. Through all this data the use of artificial intelligence will be needed and will represent a real game changer.

Until now many aspects of automation have been developed through algorithms providing an essentially determinist approach. Now we are also looking at automation through the application of artificial intelligence – which will raise questions on how to certify an automated system that is not predictable.

Applying machine learning to ATM digitisation will be challenging but potentially rewarding. What will be the benefits in areas such as improved predictability?

I think for network predictability, the use of ADS-B data from the aircraft will be one key enabler to improvement. Another is 4D trajectory management, so data on an aircraft’s trajectory can be downlinked to the ground. These are two enablers we are working on right now.

Another important research area for us is to integrate all this information and improve data collection from the aircraft. Instead of trying to guess what the airlines are doing, or plan to do, ground systems can now use this data.

How successful have you been in talking to the airlines about accessing data which has historically been seen as commercially sensitive?

We cannot take confidence and trust for granted. We have to gain it. With distributed machine learning, which requires large amounts of data from all stakeholders to enable network analysis and prediction, you can interrogate data without inputting it into your system, so we hope that will allow us to use airline data which airlines can still keep private.

What performance improvements could this deliver?

As soon as you have better predictability, there will be fewer diversions from the optimum trajectory that will burn the least fuel. So if any tactical interventions are needed, it will be because an action has to be taken and not because there is a safety margin built in.

This means we can reduce tactical interventions, improve network predictability and increase aviation’s sustainability

Do we know by how much? Have you got any target figures?

The recent impact assessment done by EUROCONTROL confirms that air traffic management impacts the optimum trajectory by 8-11%. Not all of this is linked to route predictability, but in terms of targets, horizontal inefficiency could be improved by around 3% to 4% and vertical inefficiency by around 2% to 3%.

If we look at the work done for the European Airspace Architecture Study – and especially the contributions from the EUROCONTROL Network Manager – we now have a blueprint for a perfect airspace design linked via the SESAR programme to the new technology required to support this design.

So far, the focus has been on en-route airspace improvements through better predictability and trajectory-based operations but we are also now working on this in the terminal manoeuvring area (TMA) environment, looking at approach/ TMA operations optimisation, potentially moving towards a dynamic TMA based on traffic flow.

f you have a static TMA design by default, and you have to comply with it, it’s less efficient. But if you can adapt the TMA design to the traffic flow, you can allow the aircraft to fly as close as possible to its optimum trajectory.

How important is EUROCONTROL Brétigny in terms of moving this technology forward?

EUROCONTROL Brétigny is unique in that we can provide all the simulation facilities needed at the European level. We can simulate any airspace in Europe, from current versions to future SESAR concepts. We can simulate a new concept, assess its impact, acceptability, performance impact and so on – not merely in generic terms but how it would relate to the airspace in France, Turkey or Germany, or the interface between two States.

Either through fast-time or real-time simulations, we are also developing a unique set of tools to provide an impact assessment in terms of noise and emissions.

EUROCONTROL is also leading the European Concept for Higher Airspace Operation (the ECHO project), defining the concept. Once that has been done we will need to assess it, and this can be carried out in our real-time simulation facilities, to make sure that this can be safely integrated into ATM operations.

We want to develop all these innovation initiatives to bring agility into the SESAR programme – and beyond, into the world of drones and other new airspace users. We foresee a future of working with many different stakeholders. EUROCONTROL Brétigny has the capability to make the bridge between research and operations.

How will you work with other European aerospace research centres?

We do not want to compete but to cooperate with them. We will use the results of their research, apply them to address operational stakeholders’ needs and accelerate the deployment.

It can be difficult to change the mindset from researching a solution to addressing the real needs of stakeholders. We want other centres to see us a hub, the driver for implementing their research. We are not industry and we are not going to sell a product – our solutions are in the public domain and our goal is to hand them over to industry and support as much as we can in order to deploy them as quickly as possible.

How much of your work is focused on SESAR research?

The benefit of SESAR programme is that it brings all stakeholders working together on a common plan, and this is absolutely needed because Europe is fragmented, unlike the USA.

But the other side of the coin is that it really lacks agility – you have only two years of actual work out of a four-year cycle (wave) due to the time needed to prepare the call for projects, answer and have the grant agreement. In the world of innovation you have new ideas on almost a monthly basis. So if you have a new idea for an innovative line of research six months after the publication of the SESAR call, it’s too late. You will have to wait three years before you can work on it.

What we will provide now in our Innovation Hub at Brétigny is the opportunity to bring agility into the SESAR programme, to complement it by asking operational stakeholders for their requirements on a six-monthly basis. We will ask them to choose the technology challenge they would like us to focus on.

In this way we can develop a network of operators – airports, airspace users, air navigation service providers – who together will define the operational needs that they want EUROCONTROL to address.

We expect that 100% of our innovation activities will support European aviation modernisation and make SESAR 3 a success.

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