The second day of the ATCA Annual continued on a course set on day one. We need to be considering topics beyond traditional air traffic management. The world is changing, aviation is changing, technology is evolving and our industry needs to keep pace. Although the world of ATM has slowed and even almost stood still during portions of 2020, there are many innovative topics that continue and even accelerate during this time.

The sessions kicked off with a discussion around ensuring safety and public trust. Much of the discussion was focused around the Boeing 737Max situation. The topics of automation and artificial intelligence came into play. How could these technologies play a role in potential airline crash situations? Some thoughts were shared as to how AI might play a role in airlines. In the short term, it can and is being used to help the pilots and crew do their jobs. By 2030, it could enable flights with only one pilot on board and by 2035, maybe a pilotless flight. For sure this will be looked at for cargo flights initially.

AI is becoming a consideration in air traffic management. EASA issued its AI Roadmap earlier this year. The question of AI in a safety-critical situations requires a great deal of testing and deliberation. The day will likely never come where airspace is controlled by AI, but for sure it could assist controllers in doing their job. This requires a different approach to building software. All software used in ATM needs to be certified, so how do you certify AI. The timeline was set at about fifteen years ahead to have AI that exhibits human qualities and could be certified.

Next up – A Mission to Mars. Although not air traffic management specific. It was very interesting to watch an astronaut share experiences from a 45-day training exercise for a crew that could travel to Mars.  Just a few topics to consider:

  • Mars is 20 MILLION miles away.
  • Depending on the time of day communications, would have between a 3 and 20 minute delay. A lot can happen in 20 minutes if the topic is urgent.
  • The trip would take seven months to travel to Mars, the team would spend 500 days on Mars and then spend another seven months traveling back to Earth.

All I have to say about this is, WOW.

Moving to the next general session, the topic of Operational Excellence was discussed. This panel included experts from the FAA, Dazzle Partners, Uber Elevate, Delta Airlines and the Port Authority of New Jersey. COVID-19 has had a huge impact on travel to the metropolitan New York and New Jersey airport complexes. In 2019, they served 140 million passengers. In April this figure was off by 90% and by the end of Thanksgiving week still down by 70%. As a result, this industry has shed 56,000 jobs in the US alone. Experts predict that this geography will need two years more than others to recover, targeting recovery during 2025. As the second wave plows through the US, the level of travelers worrying about getting sick has risen to 63%.

This panel was looking ahead at innovation via UTM, UAM and commercial space operations, building on these topics from day one of the event. ATM is certainly at the core of the National Airspace System (NAS).  New market entrants need to be able to enter the airspace safely, communicate with the ATM infrastructure and do no harm to the airspace. There must be interoperability with the airlines, government and industry. One way to accomplish this is through the decentralisation of decision making by developing policy and technology to enable better collaboration.

The players in these new categories of airspace users are mainly startups. Large aerospace companies (for the most part) are not designing electric VTOL craft. These companies move at a faster pace. Additionally, these vehicles might not ever land at airports, they are expected to enable ‘neighborhood aviation”.  APIs will be required to enable secure data exchange. Open architecture solutions are already coming into use related to UTM traffic management. The FAA LAANC tool is one example of this.

Let’s consider two of these topics further.  Commercial space flight is growing as noted in yesterday’s show overview. This growth over the last ten years is at a magnitude of 10x. What are the opportunities – space enables GPS and national security, space travel is also a possibility (for the rich and famous). These are new economies, but also require regulation and traffic management. I attended a large startup event in Munich, Germany about one year ago and listened to a session on this topic. In Bavaria alone, there are ten startups working on commercial space opportunities. Of course, they won’t all make it to market, but this figure was amazing to me.

Uber Elevate is working to “improve how people move”. They have expanded their app to include different modes of transport, including Uber Copter between Manhattan and JFK. The idea is not to use helicopters long term, but to help with the business model for VTOL solutions. Low noise is a requirement and the sweet spot seems to be a 20 – 60 mile route for 3 – 4 passengers. This type of service needs a different type of ATC and the vision was that one provider does not manage everything.

I also attended one of the ATCA Tech Talks on the topic of Cybersecurity Integration.  Joe Bradley from the US Air Force Cyber Resilience Office for Weapon Systems (CROWS) presented. Having spent time on cyber topics, I really enjoyed this session. Here’s a scary thought – a fighter jet today is like a flying smartphone, if hackers could disrupt the GPS timing, even slightly, the bombs would land in the wrong place! And a challenge, the F-15 is forty years old.  Certainly, pre-Cyber.  How to develop interfaces to secure these systems in today’s world?

CROWS provides testing and analysis to make recommendations for computer-based mission planning. The presentation was refreshingly pragmatic.  Begining with the concept that everyone who uses a network has cyber vulnerability. You will never be able to identify all vulnerabilities in your network. For the USAF to start here was an interestingly open point of view. In addition to the networks, the ICS SCADA systems in use also need to be secure. This is a great deal of work for humans alone. Automated monitoring, AI and machine learning need to play a role in checking all existing and new code for potential vulnerabilities.

Bradley discussed the difference between Cyber Resilience and Cybersecurity. Resilience is about responding to and recovering from a Cyber situation, while still maintaining a minimum set of operations in a denied environment.  Cool stuff.

Looking forward to today’s sessions, there’s more to be said about Cyber coming too.