Imagining the future is a tricky business. The fun part is letting your imagination run free, thinking impossible thoughts, connecting far distant dots and dreaming the sky in a new shade of blue.

In NATS we do a lot of this. While we deliver our well rehearsed services day to day we’re also engaged in a permanent process of wondering how to do things better and this thinking spills into our collaborations around the world.

More tricky is the process of explaining these concepts to other people and for this you need to make them tangible. We have our fair share of strategy documents and PowerPoint presentations but we’ve recently discovered that animation is an elegant way to turn complex concepts into simple stories that others can relate to and build upon.

glimpse 4

One day, will controllers be able to visualise traffic in 3D?

Glimpse of the Future is the first of a series of animated stories that examine these ideas from a distinctly human perspective so that we humans can connect with them. It touches upon many aspects of our future operation; automation, training, staffing, 4D trajectory management, network management, flexible use of airspace, communication and many others. The ideas are not explained, indeed for the time being I’d say they’re inexplicable, certainly un-implementable.

They’re imperfect, incomplete and implausible but this doesn’t make them wrong. The very best ideas sound pretty doubtful in the beginning, like a self-mentoring Controller Working Position or a tool to help you balance the different demands of efficiency and the environment in real time. We’re using the animations to examine their delicate imperfections, connect them with other ideas, add missing detail and build them into a plausible reality.

glimpse 3

By being able to look further ahead, controlling becomes more strategic and less tactical.

It’s had an interesting effect on our internal debate. Like most in our industry we have a history of delivering good engineering solutions. For 50 years we’ve delivered solid services using solid equipment. Most of the imagination that got us here was done long ago so there’s been a tendency to focus on fine-tuning the here and now; the hardware, software, the procedure, the airspace.

There is something magical about seeing a crusty engineer and an air traffic controller let go of this comfortable reality and leap forward to discuss whether Suzie – the lead character in our story – has eyewear that might be integrated with her kitchen and her car as well as her working position, or whether the chair also monitors her vital signs to update her medical records.

In the end it’s not good enough to just imagine the future; you have to go on to deliver it.


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Fred Hunt

I like the vision, especially the 3D view of airspace, but I’m left wondering whether or not the future is more about automated, self serve airspace. Where aircraft are essentially “self aware” and able to use preset rules to transit, join or leave controlled airspace with algorythms automatically setting the speed, cruising altitude and climb/descent rates. Always updating and self conflicting with other aircraft, managing weather conditions aircraft would simply pop up on the approach controller’s screen at the end of the route. In some cases, in the busier airports where it is economically practical, even the first and last legs could be automated.

I’d hate to write the safety case for that though…




Nice idea but with today’s technology this is very much a dream. Today’s technology cannot think or validate itself. The resources for such a system are vast and require investment, thinking, time and science which are way beyond those available today. Until then its just a Minority Report.



Chris Taylor

I really like the idea of 3D being used for air traffic control, but definitely believe the future will involve humans running the show- I don’t believe something so serious could be transferred into the hands of AI.

Plus we could end up with modern-day Luddites!




I see what you mean with the safety issues, Fred. As far as there always be unexpected issues, humans will be needed, because you can’t make algorithms for every manoeuvre a plane would require.




It will be interesting to see if NATS can develop these tools before the technology that will make ATC redundant appears. Personally, I think ATC will cease to exist in the (very far away) future and aircraft will negotiate directly with other aircraft using a TCAS-like system.

Hi all,

Thank you for all the comments – it’s great to have generated so much interest!

Fred and Paul make similar points. In the future we certainly expect to “un-delegate” more of the separation assurance task back to the pilot (it was the pilot’s responsibility in the first place of course). Although the balance will change, we believe this will always be a partnership between the pilots and the ANSPs because we also need to manage access to scarce resources like busy runways or congested airspace.

If we need to fly aircraft close together to sequence arrivals and departures with minimum deviation from the optimum profile it’s a good idea to have clear accountability for separation assurance as well but we certainly expect to see more airborne self separation for the en-route phase in the not too distant future. I agree with Fred’s point about Safety Assurance. This sort of collaborative approach to airspace management blurs the distinction between the ground and airborne systems which will require a new approach to Safety Assurance. We’re working hard with the Safety Regulator to obtain the necessary evidence and develop the necessary arguments so we’re ready when the time comes.

Tom is right about the dream but I think dreaming is an essential first step to changing the reality. It’s certainly great fun!




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