The 2019 Airspace Architecture Study proposes a future single European airspace system that optimises airspace structure and harmonizes operations. At its heart is the establishment of ATM data service providers (ADSPs). Combined with the virtual centre concept, they present a move from geographically based systems to service-orientated and virtual (ie location independent) architectures, ultimately enabling dynamic cross-border operations and capacity sharing. But this vision will not be possible without standardisation, says Isabel Franke-Chaudet.

The airspace transformation envisaged by the Airspace Architecture Study (AAS) would enable increased capacity, scalability and resilience and allow flights to operate along user preferred routing. The ability for air traffic controllers to provide a service in any airspace that the AAS envisions would enable new ways of working adapted to the operational need, greater optimisation of controller rostering and improved productivity. With these promised benefits on the table, there’s understandable interest in the topic of ATM data service provision, and colleagues have written about how this might work. But the full scale of these benefits will only materialise if interoperability can be achieved between providers and users through standardised interfaces. In this blog I set out the reasons why standardisation is so important, what is being done about it, and what that means for air navigation service providers today.

Which standards and why?

Standards are essential to achieving the service-oriented architecture and technology independence envisaged by the AAS. These range from standards for information exchange, to data contents and quality, and end-to-end interoperability between applications.

Standardisation delivers operational flexibility. It means systems can reliably talk to each other and exchange data, including interpreting exchanged information meaningfully and accurately (semantic interoperability). This allows interchange between different Air Traffic Service Units (ATSUs) and therefore for cross-border operations, enabling greater resilience.

The other impact of standards is in terms of economic viability. Considerable investment will be needed to reach the point of providing initial data services. To make this a viable investment ADSPs need to be able to develop and commission new ATM functionalities for several ANSPs at the same time, independently from their locations. Competition, and the ability to switch easily between suppliers will support this. Similarly, from the ANSP perspective, standardised interfaces also allow them to break away from the status quo where they are locked in with a single provider.

Without inter-ADSP interoperability and standardised interfaces we risk ending up in a world very much like today, with ANSPs/users linked to specific ADSP suppliers, using propriety interfaces and systems.

Some efficiency gains and other benefits could be realised, for example through ADSPs that provide a smaller subset of the data services, mainly focusing on SWIM (System-Wide Information Management. There could even be some benefits through the use of the alliance model, ie one ADSP providing services to more than one ATSU. In this model the full range of services could be provided, and some operational flexibility could be introduced between the ATSUs that share the same ADSP. However, they would most likely remain locked in with a supplier, in a semi-monopolistic arrangement and the extent of operational benefit would likely be limited too.

There is no denying that this would still be a step in the right direction but if the ADSP and virtual centre concepts are not taken further it will be a far cry from what is envisioned in the AAS.

Where are we today?

A lot of work has been delivered and is still ongoing, and key to progress are the EUROCAE Working Groups (WGs) that are focusing on developing industry standards. The WGs rely on demonstrations and validations that are undertaken as part of SESAR and so both strands need to work closely together to reach the level of standardisation needed.

EUROCAE WG-122 focuses on the standardisation activities related to the development of virtual centres, but also covers ADSPs as a key enabler. It has prepared an initial “state-of-the-art” report which summarises the maturity of the concept and gives an overview of where we stand. It is also now working on a standardisation strategy aimed at supporting the successful implementation of the concept, taking into account lessons learned in the past.

Another key activity is being undertaken by EUROCAE WG-59, which is working on the ED133A standard for Flight Object interoperability, expected to be published in 2022. The concept as originally envisioned should allow exchange of flight information in real time between all stakeholders and will thus be an important standard to enable information exchange between ADSPs and ATSUs. It is worth noting however, that in the past the development of ED133 has faced significant challenges and so whether it will deliver the required level of interoperability remains to be seen.

In parallel, SESAR has progressed with a number of demonstrations (eg PJ16 showing the feasibility of virtual centres) and numerous demonstrations are planned within Waves 1, 2 and 3. These feed directly into standardisation efforts. However, SESAR has mostly been working on sub-sets of use cases, which mainly reflect the alliance-led structure, thus limiting the progress that can be made in terms of standardisation.

Further work will be necessary to ensure standardisation enables the benefits envisioned by the introduction of ADSPs and supports industrialisation and well as deployment.

What does it mean for ANSPs in Europe?

Although it will likely still take years before ADSPs are a reality, on an ATM system lifespan scale, the introduction of ADSPs will arrive quickly. This means that to avoid potentially expensive and unfortunate choices it must be accounted for in today’s decision making on ATM systems and architecture. An ANSP is likely to be in one of two positions:

  1. At the beginning/middle of the ATM system lifecycle: there is no urgent need to upgrade.
    • In that case, noting the uncertainties it is better to wait until developments have evolved further and become clearer. In the meantime, it is worth undertaking risk/opportunity analysis of the possible future options and exploring the concept (eg meet first movers, follow existing projects…), so it can be assessed against mid-term or long-term objectives. This will allow the ANSP to evaluate what the concept can offer before making a decision.
  2. At the end of the ATM system lifecycle: there is a need to upgrade.
    • A direct move to a service-oriented approach is unlikely to be possible. So, I recommend focusing the upgrade on a system that meets current requirements but at the same time includes a contract that allows the move to a more flexible architecture and ensures adaptation to the future European architecture. An assessment of the market and benchmark against others will result in a better understanding of the current context and the likely future trends.

What next?

Considering the challenges our industry has faced in the past, and the potential pitfalls, there needs to be a concerted effort from ANSPs and other stakeholders across four activity steams:

On top of these activities, ANSPs will need to look inwards to their own organisational and system strategies, do their research and plan accordingly.

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