ANC Talks: A new digital era of aviation and the path forward for airspace and traffic management

The Air Navigation Commission is sharing this series of engaging discussions that bring industry and aviation stakeholders together to discuss different aspects of aviation.


During the 2019 Paris Airshow, the Chief Technology Officers of seven of the world’s leading aviation manufacturers signed a joint statement that affirmed: “aviation is at the dawn of its third major era, building the foundation laid by the Wright brothers and the innovators of the Jet Age in the 1950s.” With the emergence and combination of new technologies, the industry believes it has entered a new era where there will be opportunities in innovation that will help boost the aviation industry and the air traffic management (ATM) system. For matters related to the ATM system, Airbus and Boeing have a long-standing history of working together to improve aviation systems, and though they compete on the vehicle side, their collaboration to improve operations is seen as essential in ensuring that aircraft are globally operable.

This iteration of the ANC Talks was coordinated with Mitchell Fox, Senior Director of Strategy at the International Coordinating Council of Aerospace Industries Associations (ICCAIA), Ms. Mildred Troegeler, Director, Global Airspace Integration Boeing NeXt and Dr. Isabel Del Pozo de Poza, Vice-President – Head of Airbus UTM. The presenters were invited to participate in discussions with the ICAO Air Navigation Commission on a topic that relates to the future of aviation: the modernization of the airspace by integrating Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Traffic Management (UTM) in the ATM environment, in a safe, secure and sustainable manner.

There is a growing need for new types of operations that include urban air mobility (UAM) and drones that can complete a variety of missions in the lower parts of the airspace. High altitude vehicles like unmanned balloons will soon need to cross all airspaces and new concepts and vehicles will need to be integrated in the existing ones. Growth of UAS operations and the development of electric take-off and landing aircraft (e-VTOLs), high altitude pseudo satellites (HAPS) and space vehicles have brought changes that the aviation community is willing to integrate into current operations.

This new reality constitutes a challenge that stems from the complexity of the various new types of operations and vehicles. The vision is to have a diverse set of vehicles that can use the totality of the available airspace and respond to new commercial needs that will be covered by new types of vehicles, bringing about challenges in terms of complexity and capacity limitations.

With the envisioned mix of electric motors, jet engines, performance capabilities, high and low altitude operations and integration of manned and unmanned aviation, new regulations and procedures will be needed. To give an example, commercial air transport, combined with UAM that have the ability to transport passengers in urban areas – a challenging environment – will also add to the complexity of the new rules and procedures that are to provide a framework for this new reality. Combining manned and unmanned aviation will be complicated because the current ATM system was simply not conceived to cover these types of operations. The question is: how will the aviation sector adapt and cope with all of these challenges?

Airbus and Boeing see these new challenges as a unique opportunity to enter the third era of aviation. More specifically, UTM brings an opportunity to move towards this new reality in a digital era. UTM has become a priority for the aviation industry as a whole,  not only because integrating smaller drone operations into the current surveillance systems or cargo operations has become a challenge from a safety perspective, but also because it is an enabler for new operations. Looking at UTM from a larger perspective and investing in it will certainly help eliminate the risk of operations that will be needed for the future ATM. Both manufacturers believe that UTM will bring opportunities to develop new digital services and have a positive impact on cybersecurity, traffic operations and the sharing of information while securing the highest levels of safety.

This global vision towards that future requires exploration and validation in a safer environment before integrating it to a larger customized UTM system. The key UTM functions that will need to be explored include:

  • safety risk management;
  • dynamic airspace management to deal with airspace management around urban areas;
  • information and advisories to reach a consensus on how to provide digital services and secure that information is exchanged when crossing national boundaries;
  • instant communication and coordination, assuming that the number of operations will be important but also to ensure that the integration of manned and unmanned operations is safe; and
  • contingency management procedures.

Though stakeholders of UTM are very similar to the stakeholders of ATM, new players accessing the airspace based on the need of the general public are also to be included in the equation. Looking at small and medium drone operations in urban environments, for example, will bring about challenges like noise. UTM service providers will need to approach such problems, not as a single problem for small UAS in small or lower parts of the airspace. More so, they will need to agree with the industry on a common future vision. This vision is, according to Airbus and Boeing, the integrated air traffic management concept.

Military and Civil Aviation Authorities (CAAs) and local authorities have a key role to play, in particular, because of their responsibility to improve the local economy and to connect local industries. Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) are key entities as well since they provide ANS services and will have to adapt their operations, procedures and rules. Existing airspace users also have to be considered as key players, and the general aviation community will have to look at ways to accommodate the newcomers. New operators and airspace users are not always well-informed on the implications and constraints of aviation; the existing principles, standards, regulations and recommended practices will have to make sure that the spirit of aviation is maintained especially on security and safety aspects.

Manufacturers are investing in the development of e-VTOLs and integrating them while ensuring international standards are maintained. Infrastructure providers will also need to find different solutions to deal with new issues. This is where an agreement on a common vision is important.

Airbus and Boeing also highlighted the key points of UTM. The first involves the need for moving towards a digital setup for the evolution of airspace management. New ways of thinking and new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) will need to be integrated. The importance of considering other sectors such as the Internet of Things (IoT) or the advancements in autonomous technology was also highlighted. As a final point, it was noted that operations are evolving globally and they will bring new business opportunities and new business models and ideas for new operations.

Boeing and Airbus consider that interoperability is paramount. This interoperability is needed between different service providers, ATM systems, countries and different vehicle and operation types. There are many questions about how to enhance interoperability that will need to be addressed. Examples include how to secure operations in controlled and uncontrolled airspace, how to share information, how to guarantee that all use the same reference for operations, how to secure the access to aerodromes by different vehicles and types of operations, and how to interact with the existing ground infrastructure.

Airbus and Boeing reminded that safety is in aviation’s DNA. Air transport has become the safest mode of transportation that exists today. This should not be different for UTM. From guiding the development of policy and regulatory frameworks to ultimately the design and implementation, safety should be the number one priority. A high standard of safety is to be preserved for all airspace users, and this can only be achieved if safety is a guiding principle from the outset. Safety assurance must be considered across the lifecycle of UTM in its entirety – from its initial design to its operations and eventually its evolution. UTM is indeed critical in itself, but it can also bring about greater opportunities for safety advancements for all airspace users into the future.

UTM has the potential to be designed to support safety management. Key aspects underpinning UTM, such as automation, digitalization and connectivity can enable real-time risk performance monitoring and oversight of new operations with different risk profiles. Advancing the capabilities of sector safety management systems to real-time performance management and increasing automation of air traffic management systems could potentially help reduce air traffic controller and pilot workload in what will become an increasingly complex airspace. This potential for safety advancement is a journey the aviation sector as a whole is a part of.

Boeing and Airbus presented an illustration of a single, long-term, global vision for this: the single integrated airspace management system. This would stretch from the surface to airspace, encompassing all airspace users, offering the potential to enhance safety, efficiency, security and sustainability for all of the airspace users. The first steps of this journey are already occurring today and they are establishing the building blocks for all airspace users into the future, UTM being the common foundation. Achieving this long-term vision will be a phased journey, carefully controlled and coordinated with the input of all essential stakeholders. UTM concepts are already predominantly being explored for the small airspace community as it is distinct, but compatible with the existing ATM system. As the number of new vehicles increases, there will be a need to expand the scope of UTM. This is considered as the period of convergence – which will be a gradual phased and controlled one.

The long term vision will not be achieved quickly because conversations around safety, security, air navigation efficiency and sustainability must be had. This is where Boeing and Airbus see ICAO playing an essential role. The key principles that need to guide the journey: safety, scalability and feasibility, interoperability and compatibility, reliability, security, the openness of services, fairness, performance-based standards, cost-effectiveness, future-proof and flight efficiency.

Boeing and Airbus hope to relay a resounding message: that UTM will play a critical role in the future of the industry. With unprecedented innovation taking place in the aviation industry, and with the current COVID-19 situation, the long-held assumptions of the future of the aviation industry will be substantially reshaped. This has also created the need to accelerate the integration of UAS operations, in particular those that can support the management of a new reality. UTM is also needed to enable new aviation growth and opportunities through the emergence of new sectors within the commercial aviation industry. UTM serves as a catalyst for a broader airspace and ATM modernization. This will, according to Airbus and Boeing, enable growth and opportunities and ensure all aviation stakeholders are part of it.

To conclude, prioritizing innovation is paramount when leveraging opportunities to advance aviation as well as the significant benefits that these solutions can offer the world. ICAO and ICCAIA are essential to achieving the objective of the development of a globally consistent framework with standards and regulations. Greater industry collaboration can help address resource challenges that will be needed to support this activity. Airbus and Boeing reminded that UTM is being implemented today in a patchwork of different standards and regulatory frameworks. Unless a more cohesive and global approach is followed, there will be difficulties with interoperability, inefficiencies and missed opportunities. To prevent this from happening, both manufacturers, with the support of ICCAIA, recommend taking the following actions:

  • To develop a global action plan for the development and implementation of UTM, with a continued focus on safety;
  • To create a global airspace operational concept and standards that incorporate the needs of existing and emerging airspace users;
  • To create a unified air traffic management system for all airspace users that facilitates the safe integration of new vehicles and technology;
  • To support and action by States for new airspace users;
  • Existing plans for UTM should reflect emerging opportunities, taking into consideration interoperability between UTM systems, and between UTM and ATM systems;
  • And finally, new mechanisms for increased industry involvement are needed.

After the ANC Talk, Nabil Naoumi, the President of the ANC spoke with Dr. Isabel Del Pozo de Poza and Mitchell Fox to share further insight on this topic. This interview is shared below:

About the authors

Nabil Naoumi is the President of the Air Navigation Commission in ICAO

Dunia Abboud is an Associate Analysis Officer in the Air Navigation Bureau at ICAO