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Why politics and technology must work together

Posted 28 June 2017 · Add Comment

Alan Dron learns about five global 'drivers of change' in the air traffic management sector.

Electronic systems giant Thales estimates that, worldwide, around two-thirds of all flights have some sort of involvement with the company through its navigational, communication and air traffic control (ATC) products.
It has a team based in the UAE; its primary presence is in Abu Dhabi and it sees good prospects for business in the area in the coming years.
One major trend over the past decade, according to Todd Donovan, Thales’ vice-president strategy & marketing – air traffic management (ATM), has been the very rapid growth in air travel in the Middle East, with airlines using their hubs to connect Europe, Africa and Asia. “Something like 80% of the world’s population is within flying distance of the Middle East,” he said.
Speaking at a Thales briefing session in France, he noted that in the Middle East: “We’ve seen a huge growth in traffic and with that comes congestion. In our business, politics is as important as technology. Technology is readily available to solve many of our problems, but politics is much more complicated – national sovereignty, countries that aren’t too friendly with each other etc.
“There’s been a great effort around this in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and they do seem to be progressing. I don’t think it’s going to change overnight but I think there’s a recognition that working together is the only way they can have efficient [ATM] operations.
“The Gulf carriers give [countries] a huge incentive. If they don’t solve the problem of congestion in the Middle East it will only hurt their own economic prospects.”
A long-standing obstacle to the free flow of airline traffic in the Gulf has been the presence of large areas of airspace blocked off for military use. Todd said he was seeing greater cooperation between military and civilian ATM authorities in this field.
One possible solution, used elsewhere in the world, is that blocks of military airspace can be made available for civilian use when they are not required for training or exercises by the military.
Donovan added that there were five ‘drivers of change’ for the ATM sector globally:
• The growth of civil aviation, mentioned above;
• Military ATM, which, in recent years, had increasingly been buying civilian equipment as it modernised its systems, but looked for higher capabilities in areas such as Mode 5, an encrypted equivalent of the civilian Mode S, which enables automatic collision avoidance systems;
• Drones, whose explosion in numbers has triggered worldwide efforts to find ways in which they can safely co-exist with manned air traffic;
• The trend for air navigation service providers to move from being government agencies to quasi-privatised operations;
• The evolution of technology and the increasing need to be aware of cyber-security, particularly as more and more systems are connected to the internet and each other.
One new ATM technology being shown by Thales at its Innov’Days exhibition in Paris in February was a system that extends the use of ‘remote towers’. Scandinavian countries are already using the remote towers system, where an air traffic controller handles traffic at an airfield despite being based many miles away at another airport or ATM facility.
The system uses video cameras posted around the airfield; it is said to be a good solution to the problem and expense of providing ATC officers at small facilities with low traffic levels.
The next stage is to train ATC officers in handling traffic at the remote airfield using a virtual reality (VR) headset, in case the on-site cameras fail. The VR headset is loaded with imagery of the airfield, with the scene moving appropriately as the ATC officer moves his head. Images of aircraft on approach or taxiing on the ground can also be injected into his headset.
“Lots of countries are interested in it for small or medium-sized airports with small amounts of traffic,” said innovation laboratory manager Cyril Layes. “You don’t want to have 12 ATC officers on staff and only have 20 flights a day.”
One potential problem, he conceded, was that this could lead to job losses, but these would be offset by new jobs being created elsewhere by the new system.
 

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