Flying faster and safer

Two researchers testing the new air traffic control procedure

Researching new technology for air traffic control

Air traffic in Europe is increasing. A reorganisation of flight paths and air traffic management should make more flights in dense airspace possible while at the same time increasing safety.

In order to support the technological leap in European aviation, the Austrian research project “VAST - Virtual Airspace and Tower” is experimenting with new visual and acoustic display forms for air traffic control, which could be used by air traffic controllers.

Little room to manoeuvre for big innovations

"Air traffic control is a complex and safety-critical field of work with not much leeway for big innovation. For decades, air traffic controllers have been using technology that abstracts airspace and displays it in two dimensions: radar and its graphical user interfaces", said Gernot Rottermanner, Junior Researcher in the Research Group Media Computing at the Institute of Creative\Media/Technologies of St. Pölten UAS.

Important information such as flight altitude and time are only displayed by text superimposed on the radar screen. This forces air traffic controllers to derive and retain a situational overview through mental extraction of the information displayed. To aggravate the problem, interpolation of the aircraft-position data is only updated every one to four seconds. Consequently, the cognitive burden on air traffic controllers is very high.

Virtual 3D-airspace

Together with researchers from Fraunhofer Austria Research GmbH, Frequentis AG Vienna and colleagues at St. Pölten UAS, Rottermanner has developed new methods for the display of airspace. The project "VAST - Virtual Airspace and Tower" uses cutting-edge visualization techniques and concepts (visual computing) from different areas of media technology and acoustic components. The intention is to display air traffic in a virtual space so that the situational overview is better and more easily obtained than with previous technology.

In order to test the new procedure and determine the need for it, the project team conducted interviews with German, Austrian and Bulgarian air traffic controllers, developed several prototypes for two- and three-dimensional display of airspace and tested them with air traffic controllers. The project also raised the question of how the new technology might affect efficiency in terms of faster decision making and safety.

With regard to situational awareness and conflict detection, the test showed that in the subjective evaluation of air traffic controllers the three-dimensional display scored worse than the two-dimensional display. However, the objective measurements produced exactly the opposite results. The findings are currently being used to develop a fully functional prototype, which will be tested by air traffic controllers in the autumn of 2018.

More efficiency and safety

The background to the project is the master plan of the Single European Sky ATM Research Programme (SESAR), whose objectives envisage for European airspace: a doubling of air traffic, a 30 percent reduction in delays and safety improvement by a factor of four. SESAR is an initiative created by the European Commission and EUROCONTROL for standardisation, harmonisation and synchronisation of services in the context of European air traffic management.

"In the future, aircraft will move from point A to point B on a perfect parabolic line rather than in corridors in which the flight paths of individual aircraft have to be constantly changed based on traffic volume. This will allow for more aircraft in the airspace and reduce fuel consumption but at the same time will increase demands on air traffic control", said Rottermanner.

The VAST project is developing a technology that will support the technological leap of European aviation to these so-called "4D-trajectories" and will secure a position of competitive advantage for the Austrian aviation industry by preparing it for the future comprehensive use of new technologies.

Project VAST - Virtual Airspace and Tower

The project is funded by the Federal Ministry of Transport, Innovation and Technology within the framework of the Austrian FTI-programme TAKE OFF for aviation. The project is coordinated by the Fraunhofer Austria Research GmbH in Graz.

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