It is not only drones and the disruption they can cause that are driving the current technological change. Classic air traffic management must further evolve, too. Digitalisation is the big issue here. And digitalisation is centre-stage in skyguide’s strategy for the years ahead. The core element here is the Virtual Centre programme – a group of air traffic management entities under the responsibility of one or more air navigation services providers that can operate from various locations using totally standardised operating methods, information, procedures and technical tools and facilities.
The Virtual Centre programme is being given further impetus by the plans of the European Commission to create a Single European Sky (SES), and is being developed under the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) programme. Skyguide is performing pioneering work here, and is currently implementing Phase 2 of the Virtual Centre project. A milestone was reached in 2018 when the CRYSTAL tool, which has been in operation at Zurich and Geneva airports for several years, was migrated to a service-oriented platform. As a result, skyguide’s Zurich and Geneva centres are now both managed from its Dübendorf site. CRYSTAL enables traffic numbers to be forecast at any time, and is thus a key tool in ensuring the efficient deployment of resources and smooth traffic flows.
The next milestone in the Virtual Centre programme is New Route Handling (NRH), which will be a key element in adopting Free Route Airspace (FRA) – airspace areas in which users can freely plan their own route between a predefined entry and exit point.
Most of the Virtual Centre should be in place by the early 2020s. And the company architecture and the flexible technological platform should be fully operational by 2024. The Centre will enable skyguide to continue to help actively shape the technological environment, and to offer its services to other European air traffic management companies, too.
Constant process and systems improvements
The technical systems, airspace design and operating procedures of air traffic management are already being continually further enhanced. Direct routes are being gradually introduced; and arrival processes are being optimised by programmes such as iStream and XMAN (Extended Arrival Management), helping to reduce both costs and environmental strain. XMAN is intended to reduce the holding patterns that need to be flown by aircraft approaching airports, by adjusting their speeds in the airspace of neighbouring area control centres (which may be hundreds of kilometres from the destination) earlier in the flight, to ensure that they arrive precisely at a predetermined time. The iStream programme, which has been adopted at Zurich Airport, adopts a similar adjusted-airspeed approach to avoid arrival congestion around the airport in the early morning hours, just before the airport is opened after its night movement ban.
Drone technology opens up new possibilities, not only for leisure use but also for professional purposes. Swiss Post and Bern’s Insel hospital group trialled the use of a GPS- controlled autonomously flying drone to transport laboratory samples between Tiefenau Hospital and the Insel-spital’s central laboratory in summer 2018. And Swiss Post Lugano has been using drones since 2017.
The emergence of drones has spawned an interesting business segment with new firms and jobs. But there is a downside, too: airspace is a limited resource, and all its users must be carefully integrated to ensure that they do not conflict. The problem has manifested itself twice already around Zurich Airport: in both May 2017 and September 2018, a drone flew so close to a landing SWISS aircraft that the event was categorised as a “serious incident” by the Swiss Transportation Safety Investigation Board.
A pioneering skyguide role
In view of these developments, the facilities to ensure adequate cooperation and communications between unmanned traffic management (UTM) and existing air traffic management (ATM) are urgently required. U-Space is the answer: a digital infrastructure that gives drones safe access to Europe’s airspace. U-Space allows drone registration, data exchanges and the communications required. Skyguide is the first air navigation services provider in Europe to adopt the U-Space solution.
Skyguide announced at the beginning of 2018 that it would be developing a Swiss U-Space together with a leading industry partner. Having successfully demonstrated the concept with three flights in Geneva in September 2017, skyguide and its partner conducted a more comprehensive demonstration in June 2018, in collaboration with the Swiss Department of the Environment, Transport, Energy & Communications (DETEC) and Presence Switzerland and as part of the World Economic Forum’s “Drone Innovators Network” event.
The demonstration saw several dozen drones perform various tasks all over Switzerland, such as delivering medical items or conducting weather observations. The Swiss U-Space system supplied live information to a dashboard facility that visually presented the traffic flows of both manned and unmanned aircraft. A first set of U-Space services should be made available to all users in the course of 2019.
Drones instead of aircraft
Skyguide is also utilising drone technology for its own ends. Drones have been used since January 2018 to perform the calibrations and other maintenance required on the instrument landing systems (ILS) at Zurich and Geneva airports. Such calibration flights were previously conducted by a special aircraft which was flown in from Germany. The use of drones instead should cut the number of such calibration flights by 50% from 2020 and by 70% from 2023. This in turn will permit major reductions in both fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions. Noise emissions will also be reduced.