As a 50-plus year veteran of the air traffic control industry, I’ve seen a great transformation in how the industry keeps our airspace safe through technology. This transformation will continue. The future of air traffic control involves increased automation technologies, data visualization tools, a wider focus on drone safety and security and a new role in space exploration.
I love engaging with the experts at the forefront of these advancements at events like the upcoming ATCA Technical Symposium, where we will be “Celebrating 60 years of Aviation Achievements: Past, Present & Future.” In that vein, here are the advancements I see disrupting air traffic control today and in the future:
The Proliferation of Remote and Virtual Towers
Remote and virtual towers (RVT) are in their infancy but growing in scope. With RVTs, air traffic service is performed separately from the local control tower. The controller can be stationed hundreds of miles away and uses a combination of synced cameras and radars to do his or her job.
An increase in RVTs equals cost efficiencies as airports who use them no longer must build and maintain control towers locally, and controllers can serve multiple airports from a centralized location.
Mixed Reality Technology – A New Way of Seeing
A company called 360world is taking data visualization to another level ─ combining mixed reality with air traffic control. 360world is testing its SmartBinocular system at Budapest International Airport, and a HoloLens version called HoloTower is in development designed to ‘enhance ATCOs’ vision with real time flight information, meteorology, virtual monitors, and external camera feeds.’
There is a great opportunity for these technologies to reduce controller workload and enhance safety.
Self-Healing Software Certification Challenge
Much of the emerging air traffic control technology involves self-healing software which detects flaws and modifies itself. Technology is currently certified through rigorous testing however, if a plane takes off and the software patches itself en route, is it still certified? One of our upcoming panels at the Symposium covers the topic of modeling and simulation to deal with certification differently.
Drone Safety Focus
Drone taxis are being tested in China and drone delivery by companies like Amazon have taken off. Still, the long-term safety of drones as they continue to enter the airspace remains mostly under-researched. In January, the EASA published the first opinion report on safe drone operations in Europe. It will provide the basis for the European Commission to adopt concrete drone regulatory proposals later this year. In the U.S., The Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Pilot Program recently launched providing an opportunity for public and private entities to accelerate safe UAS integration.
Time and additional research are needed to understand how to improve drone safety and security, but the EASA study and UAS program show promise.
Space Exploration ─ A Driver for Automation
A key factor driving the air traffic control industry towards automation advances is its partnership with the space industry. At a conference sponsored by NASA and ATCA three years ago, the space entrepreneurs asked, ‘Why can’t we do this right now?’ and the ATC industry replied, ‘You’ve got to go through years of testing first!’ Gradually these two cultures have impacted each other. The FAA is moving much faster than before to authorize and certify aircraft drones, and the private space industry better understands that sometimes additional research is required.
It’s exciting to see all of these advancements in the industry and I know we’ll continue to see more in the future. Get a first look at these innovations at the ATCA Symposium in Atlantic City. I hope to see you there!
Visit ATCA Tech Symposium https://www.atca.org/techsymposium for the full event agenda and panel sessions.