Pushing forward with higher airspace operations in Europe

Airbus Zephyr aircraft in flight

Demand for higher airspace is accelerating, from new aircraft operating at altitudes above FL500 and capable of week-long missions, to the fast-growing sector of the commercial space industry, which is seeing new spaceports emerging in the European region to meet the ever-growing global market for commercial space launches.

This is in turn driving the transformation of the European air traffic management (ATM) system, which needs to adapt quickly to include these new entrants in a safe and efficient manner, as well as play its part in securing a leading role both for its industries and operators. New aviation-space operational interfaces are therefore required to meet the new demands on air traffic safety and global contingency management created by launches and re-entries triggered by the rise in commercial space operations.

The need for a higher airspace operations (HAO) concept built into the foundations agreed by Member States and the EU for the Single European Sky was recognised early on by the European Commission, and saw EUROCONTROL called upon in April 2019 to take the lead of ECHO, the European Concept for Higher Airspace Operations. The ECHO consortium comprising leading European industry, organisations, institutes and research centres* was tasked with ensuring safety while also being ambitious and innovative in delivering a higher airspace concept of operations (ConOps) that would lay the groundwork for future validation work and make Europe a driving force behind the global development of HAO.

The ECHO consortium, which was funded through the SESAR Joint Undertaking under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, has now handed over a fully elaborated European ConOps draft to the SESAR 3 Joint Undertaking for finalisation in the coming months.

This represents a significant step forward. An agreed ConOps is a prerequisite for the deployment of new technologies and procedures across the entire European ATM network, with HAO particularly demanding in terms of the intersection of civil and military requirements and the specificities of the European ATM network, where State sovereignty over national airspace is a fundamental cornerstone of its operational environment.

The ECHO ConOps leverages the unique features of the European ATM system, such as the sharing of responsibilities and roles between the EUROCONTROL Network Manager, ANSPs, regulators, industry and airspace users. The ECHO concept delivers a blueprint for developing the crucial elements needed to drive future validation as well as the regulatory developments needed in Europe for HAO.

Later this year, this successful European articulation of a coherent and comprehensive operational vision for HAO will bring a powerful element into ICAO discussions, as one of the successful initiatives stemming from decisions adopted during the 41st Assembly last year for new airspace entrant operations.

Play the video from the final ECHO workshop to understand more about the project

*ECHO partners alongside EUROCONTROL were Airbus UTM (Airbus Operations SL), CIRA, DASSAULT AVIATION, DLR, DSNA, ENAC (Italian CAA), ENAC (French University), ENAV, ONERA and THALES Alenia Space.

Learn more about the ECHO project

Visit our dedicated page to find out more on ECHO and the project partners.

ECHO project

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