Today’s communication between pilots and air traffic controllers: stone-age?

The work of air traffic controllers will in future be gradually replaced by artificial intelligence says Carl-Herbert Rokitansky/Photo: FlickR

The computer scientist Carl-Herbert Rokitansky speaks of “Stone Age´” when one considers that the communication between air traffic controllers and pilots is still analogous today. Rokitansky, who was involved in the development of the Internet as a young researcher at the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR), now heads the Aerospace Research Group at the University of Salzburg, after working on the development of mobile radio networks and the construction of automatic truck tolling systems on motorways.

The Aerospace Research Group of the University of Salzburg is an internationally renowned competence center for air traffic. Cooperation partners include Eurocontrol, the European Space Agency ESA, many national air traffic control authorities and airlines such as Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines, Air France/KLM or British Airways. Last but not least, the Aerospace Research Group cooperates with Frankfurt Airport (Fraport) and Salzburg Airport. The NAVISIM air traffic simulator can be used to simulate worldwide air traffic in all phases of the flight. Among other things, it is used to investigate how CO2 emissions can be reduced and flight routes and complex processes at and around airports can be optimized.

A total of around 37,000 aircraft (approx. 100,000 worldwide) are currently flying in European airspace within 24 hours. According to current forecasts, around 80,000 aircraft will take off and land in Europe within one day in 2040. In other words, two to three times as many as at present.

Rokitansky speaks of the Stone Age in terms of today’s communication between pilots and air traffic controllers. The systems his competence centre is developing are completely digital.  The release for a flight will be completely digital in the future and will make air traffic even safer. According to Rokitansky, voice communication will only be available in emergencies.

Better organisation of approach and departure routes

However, the research focus of the Group is currently elsewhere. Using Frankfurt Airport as an example, the Salzburg researcher and his team are currently simulating how to better organise the approach routes. Mathematical models can be used to calculate precisely when an aircraft should leave its waiting loop. It is extremely difficult for air traffic control to control this, for example in storms, fog or strong winds. Artificial Intelligence is able to completely take over the work of the air traffic controllers and to organize and, above all, optimize all arrivals and departures as well as all traffic from and to the runways. At the same time, environmental pollution could be reduced by 30 percent.

The computing power of the air traffic simulator is also particularly impressive during thunderstorms: fed with all available weather data, the simulator is vastly superior to pilots and airfares. An experiment using Frankfurt as an example shows that the planes cover considerably more kilometres during a storm than the planes controlled by a computer. By less than 43 percent, as Rokitansky says. What’s more, what’s not optimal from a safety point of view is that eight aircraft have actually flown under the thunderstorm. Guided by the simulator, every aircraft passed the thunderstorm and landed on the runway.

In any case, Rokitansky’s work makes it clear that the work of air traffic controllers will in future be gradually replaced by artificial intelligence.

Sources: Aerospace Research Group of UNI Salzburg, Salzburger Nachrichten

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