Singapore is conducting work related to how space-based technology can improve air traffic management (ATM), while IATA is working to improve traffic flows during the pandemic.

In a presentation during an ATM workshop at the recent Global Space and Technology Convention, Henry Foo, deputy director of aviation technology and development at the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS), listed a number of benefits for space-based ATM.

Jewel Changi Airport Control Tower

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The control tower of Singapore’s Changi Airport

“If we can have both ADS-B [Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast] and VHF coverage over oceanic and remote areas, this will allow us to have freedom of separate as close as 5nm between aircraft,” he says.

“With satellites as well as VHF you provide an additional layer of redundancy, where by land-based systems can be impacted by natural disasters such as earthquakes.”

To push the technology forward, the CAAS has one study that looks at different classes of satellites to help improve coverage, but that would require little or no changes to existing aircraft equipment. Proof-of-concept trials may take place following technical studies. Tests with an actual satellite could take place from 2024.

Also speaking at the conference was Blaire Cowles, the Asia-Pacific regional director of safety and flight operations for the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

Cowles noted that the decline in traffic during the coronavirus pandemic has allowed more experimentation with updated aircraft routings. He didn’t name the country, but one jurisdiction has allowed more flexibility with a section of military airspace, creating significant savings for airlines through shorter routings.

Cowles believes that reduced traffic volumes offer the opportunity to “prove some concepts.”

More broadly, Cowles cites incremental improvements as being essential. For a route that has very high traffic, such as Tokyo-Los Angeles before the pandemic, shaving just minutes off each flight plying the route adds up to significant fuel savings.

One challenge in the Asia-Pacific, however, is that ATM capabilities are not uniform throughout the region. Even with the most efficient technologies at the beginning and end of a flight, aircraft could fly through regions with issues such as older technology, restricted procedures, and large amounts of military airspace. This affects overall efficiency.

Cowles also warned about two emerging airspace challenges for the industry. One is the proliferation of private launch services, which will see volumes of airspace increasingly blocked for rocket launches, creating a headache for airline scheduling.

“For me, the [US Federal Aviation Administration] is probably the gold standard of managing launch activity,” he says. “You can have launches into the Pacific where the airspace disruption is measured in minutes. In other parts of the world, where the system isn’t quite as mature, the disruption is measured in hours sometimes.”

Another emerging issue is that climate change could result in more turbulence in the air as weather patterns change.

“There’s a lot of interesting research going on in this part of the world and Singapore [about the] impact of climate on in traffic management.”