EC-funded project paints picture of a worldwide air traffic management system predominated by unmanned aircraft

A major European Commission-funded research project into options for future airspace management is proposing establishment of a single global control environment, based on military-style network-centric concepts within which pilotless passenger and cargo aircraft would predominate.

cockpitless A321

The concept would see the establishment of a new international air traffic management agency and the global adoption of so-called "4D contracts" to enable improved traffic scheduling and major expansion of capacity.

The concept - Innovative Future Air Transport System, or IFATS - is expected to be fully scoped by June 2007, with proposals now in development for a European prototyping project as part of the European Commission's Framework 7 research and technology programme.

It is now only a question of whether Europe or the USA will be the first to demonstrate the concept in practical terms, says IFATS head Claude Le Tallec, from the French Onera research agency which is co-ordinating the project. "Whether Europe or the USA is the precursor depends on the research projects that are started in the near term," he adds.

The IFATS team presented details of the concept to European regulators, air traffic authorities and aerospace manufacturers at Germany's DLR research agency in Braunschweig on 14 December.

Le Tallec said at the briefing that if adopted, IFATS would lead to a significant widening of airspace access and more streamlined airport operations, with aircraft automatically controlled through all phases of flight, starting and ending at the gate.

"It is a revolutionary system because there is no pilot on the aircraft and no controller. Both are replaced with systems on the ground," he says. However, the architecture would contain provisions for manned general aviation and military aircraft operations.

The system would see the development of a network of four-dimensional "tubes" by the new global air traffic management agency. Those tubes would to some extent replicate conventional air corridors, but with far higher densities. Aircraft would traverse the tubes inside "bubbles", with the parameters defined by the 4D contracts - essentially agreements to remain within specific parameters of space and time at all stages of flight.

Unlike current air traffic control operations, the 4D contract shifts the onus of compliance from the ground to the aircraft itself. In turn the aircraft would be providing compliance reports via constant links with all other aircraft within its operating area, as well as through satellite links with a minimum of three ground stations.

Parallels between the IFATS concept and the US Federal Aviation Administration-developed Next Generation Air Transportation System concept are clear, says Le Tallec, particularly through the use of 4D contracts. However, IFATS sees a fundamental change in the role of pilots and controllers by emphasising adoption of an "extreme" level of automation.

Source: Flight International