Cranfield University and Inmarsat recently released a study that highlights the critical role that digital connectivity will play in accelerating aviation’s long-term recovery. The study offers insights and direction for key aviation stakeholders and governments as they reconsider their priorities for the industry’s future. Air Traffic Management Magazine spoke with John Broughton, Inmarsat’s Senior Vice President of Aircraft Operations and Safety Services and Russ Edwards, Manager Air Navigation Services, Cranfield Airport to dig a little deeper into their Digital Aviation Roadmap.

The roadmap looks at predictions for the next five years, five to ten years and more than ten years related to a list of key topics. For the purposes of our discussion, we focused on those topics that would impact air traffic management.

Beginning with the next five years section, the topics we discussed included ATS management, uncrewed traffic management, airspace information harmonisation, trajectory-based operations (TBO) and green descents and airport multi-stakeholder interoperability. One of the key topics we discussed was related to long lines of aircraft on the runway and how this could be better coordinated to reduce these holding patterns. Many of these holds on the ground are caused by different organisations trying to meet different metrics and not about really needing to be sitting on the runway for any traffic reasons. TBO is an area that could also help with this topic, but this requires an integrated communications system. Today these systems are still too separate to bring about a real impact.

In looking at uncrewed traffic management, 5G came up as a requirement to safely integrate with manned traffic. There was some disagreement on this topic. Cranfield felt that satcomms were not the answer due to availability and cost. Inmarsat countered that BVLOS will require two communication channels and satcomms and 5G could work hand-in-hand. The point was also mentioned that ATC organisations already have a proven system in place to accomplish this. With smaller form factors satcomms can integrate with drones.

There was a statement during our discussion that some will find controversial – during this time air traffic managers become air traffic monitors through the introduction of new technology. I’m sure not all in our industry would feel comfortable with this direction.

Moving on to the five to ten year range, the key topics addressed future flight airspace integration, communications infrastructure, TBO, airspace surveillance and uncrewed traffic management. The integration of ATM and UTM will happen as a result of vertiports being launched. This is the topic that will really push this requirement to happen. Urban air taxis are the key. Today we work with ‘planned’ traffic. The introduction of air taxis opens up the requirement to manage ‘unplanned’ traffic. In order to share information, SWIM will have to be deployed on a large scale. Although SWIM is regularly discussed today related to ATM information sharing, this needs to expand drastically and will be the biggest impact to the communications infrastructure.

Looking out past ten years, the topics addressed data communications integration, communications infrastructure, airspace management, TBO and uncrewed traffic management. As these applications evolve, cybersecurity becomes more and more important. Information is shared more widely and platforms are more open to include multiple aviation stakeholders.

According to John Broughton, SVP Aircraft Operations and Safety Services, Inmarsat, “The latest generation of Inmarsat SB-S terminals are a fraction of the size and available as line fit options with major OEMs including Airbus, Boeing and COMAC across their fleets. Not only is the size, weight and power saving a major advantage (down from up to 60kg to less than 10kg fitted) but these terminals include Inmarsat’s newest developments such as military grade VPN end-to-end encryption using Public Key Infrastructure (PKI). All cockpit voice and data sits inside this secure layer.  Inmarsat SB-S is the only satellite communications network for safety voice and data that provides this end-to-end PKI VPN cyber security."  

“Perhaps the most significant development enabled by this integration, and available today as part of Inmarsat SB-S, is that we’re already able to provide connectivity to the latest standards in Air Traffic Management (ATM), and we will be compliant with future ones too. This includes ATN-OSI for Europe (SESAR) and ATN-IPS for North America (NextGen) services – the latter of which as tested on the Boeing eco-demonstrator in 2021 – that will enable 4D Trajectory Based Operations (latitude, longitude, altitude and time) and green descent profiles (allowing flights to take the shortest available routes, cruise at optimum altitudes, and use continuous climb and descent paths). We have demonstrated this already with the ESA/Inmarsat Iris programme.”

The report goes into far too much detail than can be shared in one short article and is definitely worth a read.