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Stacking the odds in controllers' favour

Posted 5 July 2017 · Add Comment

Alan Dron looks at new technology, being developed by Thales, to help cut out traffic jams in the air.

It’s a familiar problem to air traffic controllers and passengers in busy airspace sectors around the world. Aircraft coming from multiple destinations all arrive at the same place – an airport’s approach path, for example – at the same time.
The usual result is that aircraft have to be ‘stacked’, flying in huge circles around a waypoint beacon that they can only leave one-by-one as space becomes available on the final approach. It delays flights, irritates pilots and passengers, and results in airlines burning thousands of litres of fuel unnecessarily every day, adding to emissions.
In the Gulf, the sheer volume of airliners using the three main hubs of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha (with more operating in and out of Kuwait, Muharraq and Muscat) often leads to congestion where flight information regions (FIRs) meet and aircraft have to be handed off from one controller to another.
This is particularly severe in the Gulf, which 30 years ago was a single FIR, but which has now been split into six as traffic levels increase rapidly.
Flow management is crucial, which is where a new system from Thales may be of use.
It is developing ‘Eco System’, a new flow management system that aims to predict locations where aircraft numbers are likely to pose a problem as long as three hours in the future.
The new system will bring together data sources from around the world, project the flight paths of airliners – some of which may not even have taken off yet – and predict where log-jams may occur several hours ahead.
This could lead to an air traffic control (ATC) flow manager contacting an airline to ask that the crew of a flight that is still on the ground alter their flight plan to avoid the predicted area of congestion. That will ease the workload for the controllers and potentially reduce the amount of fuel an aircraft burns if fewer diversions around weather can be calculated.
Alternatively, the system will be able to predict if aircraft will have to alter their flightpaths to avoid bad weather, for example, and start to work out what that will mean for an ATC centre in terms of workload a few hours in the future.
Typically, an air traffic control officer (ATCO) can handle 10 to 15 aircraft at any one time. If an ATC centre sees a high number of aircraft converging on one patch of airspace it can split that sector into two smaller sections and assign an extra ATCO to handle one of the two sections.
However, more sectors mean more workload, as controllers have to coordinate with their colleagues when handing over an aircraft from one section of airspace to another.
The first user of Eco System is likely to be Azerbaijan, where the new technology is due to go active later this year.
Thales is also working on an even newer technology, where ATCOs will use eye movements rather than a computer mouse to operate their computer screens.
The company stresses that this remains at the concept stage at present, but sees potential in the idea.
“Air traffic control organisations are very conservative, so it will probably take a new generation of ATCOs to be comfortable with eye trackers,” commented Todd Donovan, Thales vice-president, strategy & marketing – air traffic management.
“In many cases technology assists, but it will take some time to incorporate [into ATC systems] because you need to check human beings can use it safely. You would use a touchpad for commands through gestures, so the ATCO doesn’t have to take their eyes off the screen,” he added.
 

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