Analysing the potential of shared ATM Data Processing

Flight data processing is a complex, safety and time-critical function, right at the heart of ATM service provision. It is the main engine converting raw input from flight plans, real-time surveillance hits and live weather, into an integrated picture that controllers can fully rely on for total awareness. There is no doubt then over why ANSPs invest so heavily in ATM data processing for their ACC, APP and TWR facilities. And it’s not just money that they invest – it’s massive effort and time in foreseeing how their concept of operations will change over the next twenty years, and then engaging the industry to come up with an often yet-to-be solution to satisfy these needs.

As if this were no challenge, a bigger issue becomes apparent when realising that the European Network, which extends beyond the EU States, is home to as many as 37 ANSPs – and each of them has traditionally carried out this effort on its own, by itself and exclusively for its individual use. The underlying cause to this largely inefficient effort duplicity is no secret to anyone familiar with European ATM: organisational and technical fragmentation.

Surpassing this structural barrier has long been a hot topic in the European ATM agenda as the turnkey to enable a true leap in operations and cost-efficiency for ANSPs. In the prospect of such uncertainty, there are few things that experts will agree on. Perhaps the only two that they will indeed agree on are the following:

  • The high cost and impact of ANSPs’ flight data processing capability makes it an ideal candidate to look for synergies and boost collaboration in order to surpass fragmentation.
  • For the same reasons, added to the uncertainty of exploring uncharted territory, a sound business case is essential to support analyses of alternatives and decision-making.

The cost of fragmentation in Europe

Fragmentation is not a new problem in this field, and hardly anyone would disagree that it poses too heavy a burden on European ATM performance and cost efficiency. It comes as no surprise, then, that it has been tackled from the operational front for quite a long time, with such initiatives as the Single European Sky and the FABs created under its umbrella.

But cooperation on the technology layer has been significantly more limited: most ANSPs have historically pursued their own developments in an isolationist manner, confined to virtual ‘silos’, and to a large part continue to do so today. This frequently results in severe differences in FDP systems and interfaces across the numerous national borders, and on a consequently high ATCO workload and operational inefficiencies.

Moreover, it must be borne in mind that the numerous ANSPs in Europe are wildly different in terms of size, openness to cooperation, priorities or financial muscle. This, together with the increasing sophistication of data processing systems, requiring costlier R&D, threatens to create a true gap among ANSPs – such is the risk of not tackling this true ‘silo culture’ soon enough.

A few efforts have gained enough traction to challenge this status quo. In this regard, SESAR is playing a central role in fostering interoperability and competitiveness, and in parallel, the industry has pursued ad-hoc multi-ANSP partnerships in its own right for joint developments – such is the iTEC alliance, including ENAIRE, NATS, DFS, LVNL, AVINOR, PANSA and ORO NAVIGACIJA, with Indra as technological parther. But while everyone will agree that the issue of fragmentation must be tackled at all levels – institutional, operational and technical – the complexity of a technical solution means that there is no consensus on the way forward. As a result, numerous initiatives continue to be proposed and explored.

How could shared ATS Systems help tear down these silos?

Perhaps the first real step in this direction has been to focus on leveraging common baseline developments, but then splitting up in different paths to finalise specifications and implement operational systems. This may be regarded as a logical starting point.

A further step is already being pioneered, with increasing maturity levels, in the form of cloud-based real-time data distribution among the different control centres of a given ANSP.

But the vision goes much beyond, and it comes to answer one simple question: if the main function of any ANSP is to provide ATM/ANS services to airspace users, how is it that it invests such an immense quantity of time and resources in developing systems that ultimately hinder its own efficiency?

The full potential of cloud-based ATM data applications can be unlocked when used to integrate more than one ANSP under a single system’s umbrella through a shared data processing network. This concept could see two or more ANSPs joining to share a single ATM data processing system, or alternatively, sharing their existing systems, to the point of turning a current FDP into a shared data processing hub for all partner ANSPs. Raw data could be fed from each ANSP’s sources into the shared hub, and then processed ready-to-use data could be sent back to its owner.

Moving to a shared ATM data processing concept would enable joint ANSP clusters sharing a consolidated flight data processing system and all its associated activities for lower cost and seamless collaboration. ALG News
Moving to a shared ATM data processing concept would enable joint ANSP clusters sharing a consolidated flight data processing system and all its associated activities for lower cost and seamless collaboration

Costs and benefits of an ATM data as a service provision model

Of course, the benefits of such transformational approach will come at a price. To start with, some new and non-trivial technical challenges will immediately spring to the mind of the well-acquainted reader, spanning the areas of cyber-security, reliability or latency, to name but a few.

On top of this, upgrades will be necessary for existing data processing systems in order to be fully compliant with the different CONOPS’s of all partner ANSPs. Also, data communications-enabling upgrades will be required for all partners.

Additional challenges would also come from the institutional point of view, with issues like sovereignty, autonomy, the need for strong political will or plain operational inertia.

Solving all of these issues will certainly come at a cost. But on the upside, consolidation could unleash important cost savings through economies of scale for the design, purchase and sustainment of a common data processing system, as opposed to replicating such a system for each single control centre. This would enable partner ANSPs to share centralised R&D, training or engineering units and allow optimisation of contingency solutions.

This would free some of these partner ANSPs to decide not to host a data processing system, with the consequent economic savings, and instead rely on their partner for that purpose, thereby signing up for a remotely-processed ATM data service. In exchange, it would likely be able to pay the data-processing partner for such a service, albeit at a greatly reduced cost for all partners.

But benefits would also become apparent from an operational point of view, through the seamless sharing of best practices thanks to a common systems suite, an increase in shared situational awareness for controllers, an open CWP concept, or the resulting jump in productivity and efficiency, to name but a few points. And perhaps most importantly, this would be possible without relocating a single controller or replacing existing controller working positions.

In end, confronting the challenge of fragmentation in flight data processing is a shared priority that is gradually becoming a reality. And while the result will bring substantial benefits, naturally, a high degree of uncertainty remains as of today. What is certain is that any effective and efficient solution will have to prove that it can build on its promises by ensuring a positive cost benefit trade-off for all stakeholders.

ALG is currently exploring the underpinnings of this transformational value proposition through its support to EUROCONTROL’s Maastricht Upper Area Control Centre (MUAC) and Slovenia Control in a project co-funded by the European Commission by conducting a Cost Benefit Analysis (CBA) for such a concept, as part of the ADaaS (ATM Data as a Service) Project. The project develops and deploys a prototype to demonstrate that ATM data can be provided in an operational ATM environment as a service by one distributed ATM System to one or more civil Air Traffic Service Units (ATSUs) using more than just one CWP (Open CWP concept).

About the authors
Rubén Martínez is MSc in Aeronautical Engineering and Director at ALG
Léonard Marchet is MSc in Aeronautical Engineering and Senior Consultant at ALG
Gonçal Berastegui is MSc in Aeronautical Engineering and Consultant at ALG
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