Paris Air Show

Air Traffic Management Is High On Thales's R&D Agenda

 - June 20, 2017, 3:00 AM
Thales has used augmented reality tools for its remote tower that lets controllers see the airport whose traffic they are managing from afar. [Photo: Guillaume Lecompte-Boinet]

Air traffic management (ATM) technology is a key facet of the Paris Air Show exhibit presented by France-based electronics group Thales. In 2016, ATM activity generated annual sales of €440 million ($493 million) from a division that employs around 1,500 people worldwide. It has installed more than 3,000 air traffic controller positions in 50 towers, as well as supplying more than 700 radars and 7,000 navigation aid systems.

“Two out of every three aircraft take off and land safely with Thales solutions,” claimed Luc Lallouette, Thales’s director for Sesar (Single European Sky ATM Research) at the ATM division’s Rungis headquarters, southwest of Paris. The company is present in 170 countries worldwide, but has so far struggled to challenge for market share in the U.S., which is dominated by rivals such as Raytheon and Lockheed Martin.

At Rungis, Thales designs, develops and experiments with ATM systems in its Sky Center Lab, which AIN visited ahead for the Paris show. These include its TopSky solutions, used by 16,000 controllers in over 80 countries, simulation tools like ScanSim, its EcoSystem technology for the flight flow management and traffic sequencing,

“This place is used as a showroom for our customers, but also as an experimentation tool where the end-users [i.e. controllers] can test new developments. And of course, this facility is dedicated to innovation,” commented Sky Center manager Jean-Philippe Pinheiro. Six controllers can work at the same time in the laboratory, which has an eye-tracker able to monitor how the controller react to a simulate crisis.

The European Union-funded Sesar program is one of the key drivers for innovation at Thales. Its over-arching goal through 2035 is to allow Europe’s ATM system to accommodate three times as much traffic, but with no increase in the current levels of €8 billion ($9 billion) annual cost and also boosting safety levels.

The first phase Sesar ended in 2016, with Thales alone investing more than €130 million ($145 million). Now Sesar 2 is in progress and will run through 2020, by which time Thales expects to have spent another €100 million ($112 million) on research and development.

One aspect of Thales’s contribution towards Sesar is a new four-dimensional trajectory automated traffic management that is intended to reduce aircraft fuel burn by optimizing routes. Here at the Paris show, Thales also is exhibiting its EcoSystem, which combines web technology with so-called big data architecture to make best possible use of available airspace and airport capacity.

Another Thales innovation is a new design for a remote tower that allows ATC services to be provided in places with limited infrastructure. It uses augmented reality tools, including glasses and high-resolution cameras to give controllers a remote view of the runway, aircraft on approach and other areas of an airport, combined with all available aircraft data.

“These solutions could be effective in managing traffic peaks or for several small regional airports that can’t afford control towers,” said Lallouette. Thales has yet to announce when this technology could be ready to enter service.

Also on show here at Le Bourget Airport this week, is Thales’s new concept for a controller workstation designed at the Rungis lab. The system integrates new technologies like eye-tracking, touchscreen and voice recognition. The workstation will save time and fatigue for controllers, who will no longer have to use a keyboard and mouse since all the operations will be done on the touchscreens.

“Usually, controllers spend 40 to 45 percent of their time entering data with the mouse and keyboard,” explained an engineer working on the project. Now controllers can simply access all the data from a device about as large as a credit card that gives them instant, automatic access to all data relating to a specific aircraft.

The controller can browse through the data by scrolling with two fingers on a touchscreen. Voice recognition automates the clearance process between the ground and the cockpit of aircraft above.

Thales has tested first modules of this workstation at Spain’s Madrid Guadalajara Airport in 2014. But full service entry is anticipated around 2025 as part of the next Sesar implementation phase.