Digitalisation – Introduction




With the advent of digital technologies, plenty of our current daily realities are undergoing radical changes. Jobs and work dramatically evolve and may even disappear over time. It is not known if there will be more or fewer jobs in the future. New concepts, such as pairing processing power with human ingenuity, are slowly emerging.

While we can all agree that digitalisation fundamentally changes our society, nobody knows what will happen to Air Traffic Control and Air Traffic Management. The question WHETHER our domain will benefit from the increased computing power and networking has been replaced by WHEN and HOW.

Currently it is difficult to estimate what these changes will look like. As some of the European controllers and ANSP embrace the concepts of virtualisation and cloud based services, interesting new issues will probably surface. Outsourcing of core activities, such as flight data processing will become the norm and physical implementation of ATM units will only be dependent on political and social issues and not anymore on technological or geographical challenges. Digitalisation in Air Traffic Management is understood as Remote Tower Service, Virtualisation and Cloud Based Services and some form of integration of drones.

What kind of technology will be the precursor or the disruptive element starting to bring the revolution into Air traffic management (Marti 2003)? It is difficult currently to estimate which technologies will ultimately disrupt European ATM. Also, what will happen with the current system? NEXTGEN and SESAR have consolidated and streamlined the Research and Development in ATM. The European funds from Horizon2020 allow to invest into the modernisation of existing technology and spreading the best practices. Technology, which has not changed from the conceptual point of view, which follow the CNS/ATM logic.

A silent struggle is ongoing between the inside actors (which are transparent and evolving in the peripheries of the SESAR program in form of Virtual Air traffic Control and Cloud-Based Services, Remote Towers and Centralised Services) and the outside actors which are waiting to assess if the current ATM stakeholders move fast enough or will miss opportunities (such as in CPDLC) to survive with the legacy systems. The new giants like google, Microsoft, Amazon and telecommunications companies, as well as NASA (Baumgartner & Smoker 2013) are already experimenting with autonomous solutions for unmanned air vehicles. Their solutions to standards and operational procedures may also have the potential not only to transform ATM, but perhaps even to replace current ATM.

Is it too late to re-think the European modernization roadmap or the SESAR Masterplan or are we right on time? Time will tell. Though this is not necessarily a new feature, this time the change will be substantial as it is made possible by computing capacities unimagined before. Once the first standards for virtualization will be patented and certified by a certification institution (not necessarily an aviation one), the transformation will be radical and rapid. During the Digital transport days in November 2017 in Tallinn under the Estonian presidency, the 4th Edition of the European ATM Masterplan was launched. Under the heading Digitalisation of the European Aviation Infrastructure, the European Commission launched a revamping of the European Roadmap for technological change. The missing elements in the current edition of the ATM Masterplan regarding Artificial Intelligence, Cloud-Based Network operations to Blockchain projects in ATM, will have to be included.

Currently it is difficult to estimate what the changes will look like. As some of the European controllers go along with the concept of Virtualization (see CBS explained) of ATM and Cloud-Based services interesting new issues do surface. As outsourcing of core activities (FDP) becomes the norm, physical implementation of ATM units will only be dependent on political and social issues and not anymore on technological or geographical. Software updates are massive prototyping exercises with a lot of bug-fixing, during live operations. Safety management systems cannot capture these new ways of updating the system in its entirety. Imagining issues which will become future challenges, we might be trapped in our own current limited scope of thinking. Elements like bug-fixing are carried out on live systems and more trial and error methods are used. The need for development platforms in parallel to the real operations are only a few of the future challenges.

As professionals, are we aware that we are in the eye of the digitalization storm? Do we still believe that the second machine age of Industry, or ATM 4.0 will be for the others and not for us? Currently none of the modernization projects around the globe look at the potential to disrupt the established and highly regulated industry with new ways of data gathering and management. In the current Edition (2015) of the Masterplan, IFATCA together with the other professional staff drafted Chapter 4.7 on the role of the Human. In the light of the new challenges, digitalization will bring the need to plan the transition and change management in a business transformation way, including social and political dimensions of this change. IFATCA will have to play a significant role, which is a challenge for the Federation, as we maybe already too late with a digitalization strategy on the changes to the working environment poised to hit our colleagues worldwide.

This strategy includes identifying technical operational and professional legal policies that can enable change and influence the discussion on e.g. the future edition of the ATM Masterplan. The digitalization tsunami will unfold its power in ATM very rapidly and IFATCA will have to provide assistance and guidance to its member association as soon as possible. 

Though difficult to imagine what kind of new challenges will hit the sector, and in particular the Air Traffic Controllers working environments, some have imagined a home office-like approach (NATS 2014). Others are convinced that ATM will be fully automated (Baumgartner and Smoker 2015 ) and the changes will impact the fundamentals of our profession. IFATCA’s global statement on the future of ATM has highlighted some of these issues: Multiple separator – Reliance on automation without knowing what automation does – Legal liability shifting from the individual ATCOs to the machine, the system or the IT cloud – Test platforms allowing low cost and mobile ATC – New business models with or without ATCOs – Innovation will lead to shorter life cycle from design to deployment then what we are used today.

Digitalization will transform air traffic control in a radical manner over the coming 5 to 10 years. Together with the other stakeholders, IFATCA shall work on the possible answer with our professional expertise. The key to the future, is in part, managing change and changing the mindset at the same time!