ATCA Annual is now underway, although in a substantially different format, 100% virtual. ATM is covering the show and will bring you coverage of any news and highlights from the general and educational sessions.

The event kicked off with a video address from Steve Dickson, FAA Administrator addressing the audience with a welcome message and update of the current state of affairs. Of course, the topic of COVID-19 entered early into his discussion. He referred to the pandemic as ‘shaping and mis-shaping’ the course of 2020 and discussed some of the achievements of the FAA in response to the situation. Early in the situation, the need for repatriation flights was very high. The figures were impressive: 125,000 passengers on 1.300 flights travelling from 139 countries. He also discussed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act which is a $1 trillion fund to support Americans during this time. $10 billion of which impacted our industry directly.

The US Department of Transportation has developed its Runway to Recovery program to implement programs as a result of CARES and help the industry to get back on track. Lastly, he mentioned that the ground order for the Boeing 737 Max has been rescinded at this time with the aircraft being deemed safe to return to flight in the US as of the 19th November.

Dickson looked ahead at innovation. Today the key topics focus on drone delivery and commercial space flight. To date, the FAA has approved the first waivers for the use of drones for delivery of medical supplies, PPE and school books during lockdowns. Zipline, UPS Flight Forward and most recently Amazon Prime Air have received waivers. During 2020 there were more than 30 commercial space flights with an anticipation of 56 planned for 2021.

Next up was a panel to discuss ATCA’s Blue Skies Initiative (BSI) with representatives from Collins Aerospace, PlanzerMcLean, L3Harris Technologies, RCTA, NASA and the Aviation Management Association. Starting with a short discussion about the current state of aviation and a belief that normal levels of air transportation will not return until 2024. In summary the feeling of the panel was ‘today its all about drone delivery”.

This panel also looked ahead at innovation. The activity in the industry today centers around Urban Air Mobility (UAM), drones, commercial space flights and super/hypersonic flight. Today there is no single organisation looking across all of these topics. Additionally, there needs to be policy, technology and operations requirements in support of these topics. Without standards and the elimination of silos it will be difficult to build a strategic plan for the future. BSI’s goal is to develop a plan that is not in conflict with other initiatives in the industry. IoT and machine learning were two of the technologies addressed that will help to move forward these initiatives. The opportunities for air traffic growth in the short term are UAM, drones and cargo.

ATCA’s Tech Talks also kicked off on Monday. The session included presentations from three different organisations – the FAA, IDS AirNav and the SESAR Network Manager.

The first was Michelle Cady from the FAA NextGen program discussing high altitude traffic. Upper Class E airspace operations (or E Traffic Management/ETM), which refers to those above flight level 600 (FL600), doesn’t really have organised traffic management services to support and there is only minimal coordination with ATC.

IDS AirNAV spoke about its areas of focus for the future of ATM. Again, we see a great deal of focus on drone traffic. Specifically, urban air mobility, UTM and cross-border traffic management. The discussion centered around digital transformation through the use of technologies such as AI, machine learning, SWIM and remote/digital towers. The importance of enabling BVLOS in support of UTM and satellite for tracking of supersonic aircraft. A service-oriented infrastructure with data analytics needs to be in place to support the migration of AIS, AIM, ASM, ATM, ATFM and UTM data sharing via SWIM. It’s clear to see a trend in the first day of the conference. Although traditional ATM innovation might currently be slowed due to the pandemic and lack of passenger traffic. The industry overall is moving ahead with innovation in areas through the expansion of traffic through different aircraft types (UTM, UAM, super/hypersonic and commercial space flights) and at different altitudes in support of these vehicles.

Stayed tuned for tomorrow’s update on day 2.