Friedrich-Wilhelm Menge, Chief Technology Officer at DFS, Klaus Meier, Chief Technology Officer at skyguide and Andy Taylor, Chief Solutions Officer at NATS, discussed the role of digitisation as the future for ATM.

The current Corona crisis challenges ANSPs with prioritising technology investments needed for the future, despite low traffic numbers and revenues. In 2019, ANSPs struggled with capacity constraints, while COVID-19 reduced air traffic by more than 50 per cent in Europe. There was a view discussed that the new normal for air traffic will always be less than in the past. As ANSP sought government relief to help them through these turbulent times, there had to be deliverables attached to that funding. This was good news for continuing infrastructure investment to occur. With a move to work from home scenarios and the need to balance the level of controllers online with the level of traffic in the air, virtual centre technology supported this for skyguide. DFS also spoke about the success they had in shifting to a work from home setup for positions that could be conducted in this fashion.

NATS concurred with the thought that the airspace will never be the same. Not only because of traffic levels, but also because of the change in aircraft – increase of unmanned – in the shared airspace. These new vehicles cannot be supported by traditional ATM infrastructure, new technology is needed. 

Skyguide stressed the importance of an open, modular architecture. Friedrich-Wilhelm Menge, DFS, highlighted the use of cloud technologies, more standardisation and efficient data management. "Our current systems stand side-by-side. However, we need a horizontal approach where we use cloud technologies on which applications are built, while the actual workstations can be easily configured based on the specific requirements of the user roles and will have few technical dependencies on the applications. If we want to act faster and more flexibly in the future, we need a decoupling of all infrastructure modules in the long term." 

In the past, the sense of urgency for this migration was not that high. As a part of national infrastructure, there was always the view that the government would take care if something catastrophic, like a global pandemic, occurred. Maybe we’ve all learned something in the past year to change this way of thinking.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and automation will be key technologies to enable the elimination of data silos and better optimisation of existing data. Data silos within airports should evolve to allow for data sharing across functions via common platforms that communicate with each other. AI and machine learning can’t bring about full digitalisation without open systems. UTM will lead the way in this area and hopefully ATM will quickly follow. It’s really all about the use of the cloud.

Participants at the forum agreed that it was imperative that the entire aviation industry engaged in increased data sharing. Andy Taylor, Chief Solutions Officer Digital Towers at the UK's air navigation service provider NATS, said: this would require a cultural change".