Big jets, bustling airports and exciting destinations may be the conventional image of aviation. But the industry is on the cusp of profound change, with eVTOL aircraft and mass drone operations set to transform our skies in a way we haven’t seen for a hundred years.
Underpinning that new world we need solid foundations, and we’re developing NATS OpenAir to unlock the future of aviation in the UK, revolutionise the way we use airspace and accommodate a new generation of flight.
The current landscape
In the existing aviation landscape, NATS plays a crucial role in ensuring safe and efficient air travel. We provide a web of services that grants access to critical information for all airspace users, from private pilots to commercial airlines, military aircraft, and more. These services are the invisible infrastructure of our skies, just like the road network and electricity lines that underpin our daily lives.
The emerging industry of new aircraft types like eVTOLs (electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles) and uncrewed drones operate today in segregated airspace on a limited basis. Only specific and restricted-use cases are possible, such as blood sample delivery trials and infrastructure surveillance.
With the right infrastructure in place, they can do so much more.
The vision: NATS OpenAir
NATS envisions a future where different types of aircraft can coexist seamlessly in a single unified airspace. NATS OpenAir is our proposal for achieving that safely, sustainably and securely.
The core idea is to extend NATS’ current services, leveraging automation and digitisation to provide vital data and network services to both existing and new airspace users.
Central to this vision is an underpinning aeronautical data exchange platform, that facilitates data sharing between operators within specific blocks of airspace. This would support higher level services to existing and new airspace users by gathering, validating, integrating, and disseminating data from a wide range of sources, including NATS’ own surveillance infrastructure. This would generate a consistent and assured picture of all planned activity in that airspace, which all users can rely on and use as a foundation for safe operations.
Full integration of new airspace users, which is key to unlocking the benefits they bring, means all airspace users will have to be able to understand what’s happening in the skies around them, no matter what type of aircraft they’re flying or whether there’s a pilot on board. This is a core principle of NATS OpenAir.
A new network management function would manage access to specific blocks of airspace, interface with emergency aircraft and provide safety data. Importantly, we are not suggesting NATS OpenAir would provide air traffic services directly to new airspace users. Rather it would become the foundation on which others – be it service providers or drone operators – can build new and thriving businesses.
This two-pronged service framework would create an infrastructure that enables uncrewed aircraft to be integrated alongside the operations of commercial and general aviation, while maintaining today’s high safety standards. It would also reduce barriers to entry, enabling innovation and competition across the rest of the industry.
Source: NATS Blog, 26 September, 2023