Uninitiated passengers might be forgiven for thinking that pilots take the most direct routes from A to B, and that once they’re airborne, the complicated part is over until it’s time to land. They’d be mistaken. The airspace above Britain is one of the most congested in the world, with over 2.2 million flights annually. This figure includes around 8,000 daily flights during the busy summer months, as well as 80% of all the planes to North America from Europe and the Middle East that fly over the UK every day, with the same number returning every night. Add to this the fact that our airspace is shared with military training aircraft and other operations. Now throw into the mix Britain’s weather patterns (mainly strong winds and fog). Suddenly, the complexity of the challenges facing air traffic controllers operating within a limited amount of available airspace becomes clear.

How far has UK aviation come?

  • 10 million passengers

  • 279,000 Tons of cargo

  • 500,000 flights

  • VC-10 largest aircraft

  • 220 million passengers

  • 2,304,000 Tons of cargo

  • 2.2 million flights

  • A380 largest aircraft

As if that isn’t enough to deal with, Europe’s airspace boundaries resemble invisible frontiers in the sky defined by each country’s sovereignty, rather than overall operational requirements. This means that air traffic control service providers across Europe currently use many different types of equipment and procedures to manage the aircraft within their individual airspace. However, this is about to change…

The first move towards rationalising the situation was made in 1999, when European neighbours started talking about ways to manage the skies more efficiently. Since then, their sense of urgency has increased: already one of the busiest in the world, over the next 20 years European airspace is forecast to double its current 26,000 flights daily. “Without a complete modernisation of the airspace structures above us,” explains NATS CEO Martin Rolfe, “delays are set to soar to fifty times their current levels, costing over £1bn a year, some of which is passed on to customers. Basically, we have the equivalent of a road network in the sky that’s fast losing the ability to keep pace with demand. Think of what would happen if you tried to put a million more vehicles on our existing roads!”

Think of what would happen if you tried to put a million more vehicles on our existing roads!

Martin Rolfe Chief Executive Officer, NATS

A joined-up solution

So, they reasoned, if everyone were to upgrade to state-of-the-art technology, airspace designs that get the best out of that technology and create a unified air traffic management system, it would shorten journey times, lower fuel burn, and improve punctuality and safety. It was calculated that these efficiencies would reduce CO2 emissions by 18 million tonnes and benefit the European economy to the tune of 320,000 extra jobs and €419 billion additional GDP. Moreover, instead of every country designing, building and maintaining its own individual technology, the development costs of new systems would be shared across many countries and air traffic control providers, making it more efficient for everyone. Manufacturers would also gain by being able to focus R&D on integrated equipment for a single central system; and with standardised technology, all air traffic controllers could be trained in exactly the same way.

It was out of these discussions that the idea for the Single European Sky (SES) initiative was born. “Once fully implemented, SES will treble Europe’s current capacity, with improved routing efficiency, timekeeping, minimum disruption, and a reduced cost of air traffic management,” explains NATS General Manager of Strategic Delivery, Paul Haskins. “Right now, the travelling public pays significantly more for flights across Europe than they need to pay.”

Once fully implemented, SES would be able to handle 20 million flights annually (treble its current capacity), with improved routing efficiency and timekeeping, minimum disruption, and a much-reduced cost of air traffic management

Paul Haskins General Manager of Strategic Delivery, NATS

A techno revolution

The key to such a bold idea as the Single European Sky initiative is top-drawer technological support – this was underwritten by the Single European Sky ATM Research programme (SESAR). Martin Rolfe again: “Now the challenge is to capitalise on the new technology so that airlines and, ultimately, their passengers, benefit – and with the highest levels of safety in the world.” Launched in 2004, SESAR aims to develop inter-operable technology and procedures that will enable aircraft to fly their optimal routings, guided by air traffic controllers using state-of-the-art, 4D-trajectory, flight-tracking tools. NATS is a highly committed participant: “Once this type of technology and the associated procedures are commonplace in our operations rooms,” says Paul Haskins, “flights will be managed on a 4D trajectory and issued with a safe and efficient routing before they leave the ground. The role of the controller will move towards airspace manager, maximising safe utilisation of the skies, rather than controlling individual aircraft. We’ve a long way to go, but this is an exciting future, and NATS is keen to lead the way.”

Now the challenge is to capitalise on the new technology so that airlines and, ultimately, their passengers, benefit – and with the highest levels of safety in the world.

Martin Rolfe Chief Executive Officer, NATS

Simon Daykin, NATS’ Chief Systems Architect, expands on this: “We’re collaborating with our European partners to create common software solutions, including the key systems for handling flight data. These are at the heart of any air traffic control system, monitoring what flights are coming and going, where they’ve been, and providing the information that makes it possible for controllers to manage airspace with maximum effectiveness. Sharing a common approach and software tool with our European partners not only gives us integration and the ability to share information that is beneficial to everyone, it also lowers costs and provides our clients with a much more consistent service.”

Getting ahead of the curve

Mindful of the challenges presented by new technology, NATS took the decision to start the ball rolling early, allocating £620m to its Capital Expenditure programme for building and transitioning the SESAR technologies of tomorrow into operational service. This is some years ahead of the deadline set by the European Commission for full integration of the new system, because in the meantime air traffic doesn’t remain static – it’s growing by around 3% annually, presenting controllers with ever greater complexity. Another big motivating factor is that some of the new technology, while commonplace in other industries was previously untested in the aviation industry, so waiting until nearer the time to get started felt like letting it get too close to the wire – a longer test period was considered essential. Of equal importance was the drive to maintain optimal levels of service: “By delivering early,” says Martin Rolfe, “NATS will be making more fuel-efficient routings available and addressing the challenges around airspace capacity sooner. The invisible infrastructure that currently keeps everything running is based on old navigation techniques and technology both on the ground and in aircraft. These evolved over the last 50 to 60 years to keep aircraft apart, but also closer to the ground for longer – we want to move aircraft in and out of airports as efficiently as possible, get them higher more quickly, and then route them more precisely over the sea and away from populations. A big part of the goal is to minimise the impact on people on the ground.”

We want to move aircraft in and out of airports as efficiently as possible, get them higher more quickly, and then route them more precisely over the sea and away from populations.

Martin Rolfe Chief Executive Officer, NATS

The net result of the decision is that as of now, radar, flight-data processing and air traffic controllers’ working lives are all being streamlined: “The new iTEC system allows us to fuse data from many sources, including data-links to the aeroplane itself, giving very precise 4D trajectories,” says Paul Haskins. “This creates a much higher fidelity model of where an aircraft’s going and where it’s been. Being able to accurately predict trajectory enables us to take avoidance action in a proactive, rather than a reactive, way.” So, rather than asking pilots to make huge detours to avoid aircraft interactions , the new system will simply come up with the optimal profile that planes need to maintain in order to pass each other with the minimum separation, a concept that Martin Rolfe refers to as “pre-deconflicting the sky”. The anticipated outcome is that the UK’s capacity will be increased by 40%, making it possible for more aircraft to be managed by the same number of air traffic controllers with enhanced safety standards.

Sharing the information obtained via the new platform will give everyone a system-wide knowledge bank containing richer data

Simon Daykin Chief Systems Architect, NATS

One for all, all for one

Data center
Innovation labs

“Sharing the information obtained via the new platform will give everyone a system-wide knowledge bank containing richer data,” says Daykin. “This will be distributed throughout the industry to everyone’s advantage, helping us all with what we’re doing.” The new System Wide Information Management concept (SWIM) is a prime example: using highly reliable and super-secure technology found in high-tech industries such as the financial services sector, it’s a way of exchanging information between, for example, airports and airlines. The evolution of iFACTS, a real-time predictive analytics tool, manages interactions in a far more organised fashion, allowing air traffic controllers to accurately predict an aircraft’s trajectory within timeframes as far ahead as 18 minutes, while still taking into account the weather and the plane’s dynamics. This means more flights can be handled, giving customers a better service and reducing the cost of air traffic control per flight. Meanwhile, XMAN – the arrival-management tool that is used at London’s busiest airport, Heathrow – makes it possible for air traffic controllers to ask pilots to slow down, rather than keep planes in a holding pattern while they wait for a landing slot. This also saves fuel, reduces CO2, and improves the customer experience.

We're bringing together the best-of-breed industrialised technology with the latest air traffic management software to function in a joined-up, holistic way.

Simon Daykin Chief Systems Architect, NATS

This industrialisation of the infrastructure offers a further benefit, this time environmental: NATS can reduce its physical footprint and its power consumption. “We’re incentivised to reduce CO2 emissions,” explains Martin Rolfe. “This involves running a mathematical calculation that looks at every aircraft’s most efficient profile, vertically and horizontally, and comparing the data with its actual flight path. From this we obtain an efficiency score: the closer we get to optimum profile, the lower the CO2. It also means lower fuel consumption, and very broadly speaking, it often means less noise, in that the less you hammer the engine, the less noise you create. The net result is that back in 2006 we committed to reducing aviation-related CO2 by 10% by 2020: as of end-2014 we had achieved over 4%, with 6% to achieve in the remaining six years. We’re on track at this point, and we’ll be helped enormously by the new technology. We want to continue this way.”

The other big improvement is resilience to software and technical glitches. NATS operates out of two control centres one at Swanwick in Hampshire and the other at Prestwick in Ayrshire. If a systems failure were to occur in Swanwick, Prestwick would be able to take over and operate Swanwick’s airspace, because the tools and techniques will be identical and work off the same infrastructure. In fact, iTEC is already up and running in Prestwick, having had its first test-drive in January 2016, when it was used to control planes on a trial run in order to evaluate the data. It’s expected to be in full service controlling Scottish airspace by June. Thereafter, it will be rolled out into the NATS technology platform so that Swanwick – currently split between two separate operations rooms that are to be merged into one joint facility by 2019 – can use it. Thereafter, all UK airports will gradually hook up to the new air traffic management system in a staggered progression. NATS has a worldwide reputation for operational excellence, and for providing a safe and efficient service at good value; the new technology that’s being implemented will allow it to continue to offer operational excellence into the next decade and beyond.

iTEC

Stands for Interoperability Through European Collaboration and forms the basis of two core parts of the next-generation air traffic management software technology: Flight Data Processing (FDP) and the Controller Working Position (CWP). Working together with the systems provider Indra, air navigation service providers from Spain, Germany, the UK and the Netherlands are developing a common software solution for these key ATC system elements.

This technology will strengthen safety even further, increase efficiency, and improve environmental impact of flights through more advanced and upfront detailed planning of all flights trajectories. It will also further enhance interoperability between control centres in Europe allowing us to share these detailed trajectories making it possible to optimise aircraft trajectories across borders.

iTEC will fully integrate with SWIM to share this information with airlines, airports and other air traffic providers within the wider system.

SWIM & EIS

SWIM stands for ‘System Wide Information Management’ and is a global aviation standards based concept that will improve how information is shared and managed along its full lifecycle. All ATM information, including aeronautical, flight, aerodrome, meteorological, air traffic flow, and surveillance will be available with the right quality to the right person, system or process at the right time.

Whilst SWIM is primarily a concept for sharing information between different parts of the global aviation system, its concepts are widely used in other industries and equally as relevant for how NATS integrates its own systems To this end, NATS is creating an ‘Enterprise Integration Service’ (or just ‘EIS’) that provides both an internal information sharing capability and the SWIM capabilities to share information to all participants.

EIS will enable NATS to put SWIM at the heart of our own system integration by adopting a service-orientated architecture and provide a common foundation for exchanging information between services in an efficient and timely way whilst supporting interoperability with the wider SESAR model of communication between aviation partners.

Foursight

We are coupling the core iTEC software with the highly advanced Foursight toolset already deployed by NATS in parts of the UK airspace.

Used with our current systems and as part of our new systems integrated with iTEC, Foursight gives the air traffic controller unparalleled predictive capabilities to identify trajectory conflicts up to 18 minutes in advance, further improving safety, efficiency and capacity of the operation.

VoIP

Voice communication is critical to NATS operations as it enables direct communication with aircraft and other ground based operations such as airports and adjacent ATC centres. This has traditionally been based on fixed circuits and legacy protocols, but we are now able to deploy the Voice Communications system over the standard IP protocol used by modern networks – called Voice over IP or just VoIP.

From an operational perspective, VoIP will allow NATS controllers to access different radio frequencies and ground connections in a reliable manner meaning they can work in even more flexible ways across our two centres.

VoIP not only allows NATS to transition to the modern networks provided by our telecommunications partners, it also allows us to increase our resilience through advanced capabilities such as ‘parallel redundancy protocol’ (PRP) such that every single voice message is passed in real-time over two separate networks, with only one actually required for perfect speech!

VoIP will also greatly improve interoperability, allowing us to easily integrate and communicate with adjacencies across borders, particularly other air navigation providers, in a standard based fashion.

Cloud

A term used to describe common pools of technical infrastructure such as computer servers, storage systems and networks. In the IT world it can mean different things, but to NATS it means a private, safe and secure common infrastructure that our operational software can use. We are investing in advanced common networks that provide high speed dual-resilient links between all our systems across our centres, and building out multiple independent pools (or zones) of servers and storage systems that we can spread our mission critical applications across.

This approach enables us to increase resilience through having the ability to move applications to different zones in pre-emptive or reactive response to issues and faults, whilst also benefiting from having standard commodity hardware and associated spares. Not only is this of benefit to day to day operations, but also allows us to lay the foundations for us to respond quickly to major disruptions to the technical system including contingency scenarios, where we can shift operations and systems between centres in minutes.

Big data

NATS handles around 2 trillion items of radar data alone a year. As part of the systems upgrade NATS is creating a ‘big data’ repository, allowing us to store more data than ever before and make it quickly and easily accessible for analytics and data insight.

Collecting everything from technical data from our systems to the voice communications and surveillance data from our radars, will enable predictive analytics to support improved trajectories, efficiency and safety for the future. So in the same way Internet search engines have revolutionised our access to information, NATS is doing the same for its own data, enabling us to get better insight into our operations to continuously improve delivery for the customer’s benefit.

Fleet, flexible and faster than Usain Bolt

The beauty of this technological revolution, says Simon Daykin, is that in the last 20 years IT has evolved so fast that air traffic management can now piggyback on commercially available off-the-shelf technology rather than having to be designed from scratch. “We’re also reconfiguring existing software, of which iTEC is a good example: its 4D trajectory capability is the outcome of industry-wide collaboration, and it’s already in use in Germany. Software from other industries, such as the financial sector, is being exploited too: instead of highly interconnected systems that are dependent on each other, we can use loose-coupled software in a less brittle, more flexible and more agile manner. The new technology behind high-speed connectivity further illustrates the point: no longer constrained by where it’s located, we’re free to spread equipment around centres in different geographic locations.”

In all of this, security is paramount, so it’s no surprise that the NATS technology platform could be straight out of a James Bond film. Take, for example, the super-efficient fibre optic cable that stretches the length of the country – for an indication of just how efficient, here’s a fact to conjure with: Usain Bolt could run no more than a mere 6 inches in the 14 milliseconds (or 7/500ths of a second) that it takes NATS to send Shakespeare’s entire works from Swanwick to Prestwick and back again!

“Advanced technology means improved safety, capacity and performance,” says Daykin. “We’re implementing something that we call ‘One Operation at Two Centres on a Common Platform’, bringing together the best-of-breed industrialised technology with the latest air traffic management software to function in a joined-up, holistic way. This will give us a high-performance new system that’s very secure, flexible and resilient, and works for the good of all.”

Martin Rolfe concurs, reinforcing it by defining his role as “making NATS the best air traffic management service in Europe at the most competitive price, given the complexity of our airspace. At the moment, only the sky is the limit, literally. What we’re doing is redesigning the sky to accommodate change to benefit everyone.”

What we’re doing is redesigning the sky to accommodate change to benefit everyone

Martin Rolfe Chief Executive Officer, NATS

Once fully delivered, NATS won’t stop there – it will keep on exploring its capabilities to see what more it can offer. “To limit ourselves to only upgrading and modernising our technology,” says Paul Haskins, “would be to miss a big opportunity to completely transform air traffic services. The iPad is a neat analogy: initially it may have been about doing away with the need for paper and printer, but Apple has never stopped looking at how to make it an even more indispensable tool in everyday life. Similarly, now that we have the basic technology in place, we can take it further. Perhaps we’ll piggyback other applications on it that will save time, eliminate duplication, and put money back on the bottom line. Not just for us, but for our customers too.”

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