Averting chaos in Europe's skies will require replacing systems that are up to 50 years old. Air traffic throughout Europe is now being reorganised to meet the challenges ahead.
"Current communication systems have been in use since the 1960s and 1970s," states Jan Erik Håkegård of the Norwegian research institution SINTEF. "They will not be able to deal with the pressing need for greater capacity."
Dr Håkegård heads the project Spectrum Efficient Communication for Future Aeronautical Services (SECOMAS), established to develop new air traffic communication technology. The project receives funding under the Research Council's Large-scale Programme on Core Competence and Growth in ICT (VERDIKT).
Intranet for air traffic
Whereas pilots currently communicate verbally with air traffic controllers, this information will be digitalised in the future. One purpose is to make the information available to multiple user groups, such as ground crews.
"In the future, information will be largely digital and stored in an Internet 'cloud', and communication will function like an intranet," explains Dr Håkegård.
Will benefit passengers
"Travellers will probably not notice the changes much," adds the project manager, "which is exactly what we intend."
"Passengers may even see prices drop a bit, and find that their journeys take less time overall, but by and large these factors won't have a major impact on their experience. By contrast, if we didn't carry out this upgrade, they would really feel it -- the increased flight activity would mean sky-high prices and a large number of delays."
Better information flow
Coordinating a large network of many aircraft is extremely challenging; if one flight is delayed it affects all others. Furthermore, once delays arise, it is a major endeavour to reallocate the necessary flight paths.
The conversion to digital services in the aviation industry is a comprehensive undertaking with strict requirements governing the new communication technology.
"A set of digital services for pilots has already been developed," explains Dr Håkegård. "The system will give them information about the status of their aircraft, the location of other aircraft, what kind of weather to expect, and where they can fly to increase air traffic efficiency."
The result will be fewer delays, shorter flight times, and a better flow of information between airline and airport personnel.
Flights planned in detail
Currently, a plane is not allocated a landing slot until it is close to the airport, which often means that pilots must spend some time circling while they wait their turn in busy traffic. The technology under development will reduce this kind of waste.
"By the time the plane leaves its gate before take-off," says Dr Håkegård, "the flight crew will have a detailed schedule showing where they should be at any given time. This allows them to plan the flight with much greater precision."
Efficient and greener
Reorganising all aviation traffic across national borders to raise efficiency as well as capacity is one of the EU's most ambitious priority areas. The initiative is absolutely necessary in order to deal with future increases in air traffic, not to mention challenges related to safety and the environment.
"Europe's airspace is very fragmented today," says Dr Håkegård. "Once we implement integrated management, we will have greater control over flight activities and be able to fly more direct routes more often than what is currently possible."
Punctuality will also be substantially improved once more tasks are entrusted to the new technology, according to the project manager, who stresses that the systems being developed will in no way compromise current safety standards.
Efficient air traffic and lower fuel consumption will also benefit the environment. One long-term objective behind the reorganisation is to reduce average flying time by 8-14 minutes per flight while minimising fuel consumption and thereby CO2 emissions.
The European initiative's technological and operational dimension is entitled Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR). The SECOMAS project's contribution to the overall initiative is development of the technology to digitalise communications between flight crew and airport personnel.
Mass production and gradual installation of the new technology will begin in 2014. But special challenges posed by the geography in countries such as Norway require some special adaptations.
"Norway extends over great distances with little infrastructure and many mountains compared to Central and Southern Europe," says Dr Håkegård. "This requires that the systems be adapted for Norwegian conditions."
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