When air traffic control first evolved in the 1940’s and 1950’s it was a service based largely on set procedures.
There was little use of radar so aircraft had to follow established tracks guided by ground based navigation aids. Pilots then confirmed their altitude and the time of passing navigation fixes in order for the controller to build a picture of the traffic environment.
The deployment of primary radar, and subsequently cooperative secondary radar, radically changed the role of controllers and permitted a step change in airspace capacity. Radar provided a more accurate picture of what was in the skies allowing aircraft to be closer together and enabling greater efficiency and expediency. Air Traffic Management evolved from a procedurally based service to tactical Air Traffic Control.
We are now at the dawn of a third age, a new, or maybe not so new, world of systemisation. But what do I mean by this?
It means that aircraft will once again be separated to a greater extent procedurally. The use of tactical intervention will reduce as the routes and trajectories of flights will have been determined long before the aircraft even enters our airspace. Air Traffic Control will evolve from tactical control to Air Traffic Management with an emphasis to optimising the aircraft’s ideal trajectory, transmitting that approved trajectory to the aircraft and then monitoring conformance with that plan.
This revolution in ATM will offer big operational efficiencies to our airline customers in terms of reduced fuel burn, the ability to deliver and then operate to a plan for our airports customers, and opportunities for improved productivity in our own operations.
So what does ‘systemisation’ mean in practice? As the aircraft taxis out to the airport holding point, departure tools can start to become very precise in determining its actual airborne time. We will know the aircraft’s performance capabilities all of the way up to cruising altitude and also the ideal point for it to enter ‘Free Route Airspace’. Our systems will use all of this information gathered from all the aircraft in, or planning to enter, our airspace to design and transmit the optimal trajectory for the aircraft from take-off to cruise. This trajectory will be designed using very accurate Performance Based Navigation (PBN) principles to deliver assured separation from other traffic, with the system and controllers then monitoring performance to plan once the aircraft is airborne.
It is our vision that this concept of operation will cover all phases of flight from take off to landing, excluding the cruise during which aircraft will be in Free Route Airspace.
This isn’t some far off pipe dream. We are working to deploy these new SESAR based techniques and technologies from 2018 onwards. The first step is through deploying more PBN routes with assured separations to reduce tactical intervention and eventually, as the systems evolve, to deliver the full systemisation vision.
In simple terms change can go in circles to the benefit of our customers, from procedure based separation to radar intervention and soon on to procedure based separations again. Only this time our vision is based on technologies unimaginable to those pioneering pilots and controllers of the ‘40s and ‘50s.
What do you think of this vision of the future?
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