Airspace Q4 2017: Incremental change no longer the answer

1 December 2017

Air traffic management can, and must, learn from other industries to deliver step-change capabilities.

“ATM must move much faster to become data-centric and embrace the technologies that enable it,” says  Mark Cooper, who heads up the Aviation Technology team at Deloitte.

“The industry is at a critical stage,” he continues. “The demand for air travel is increasing but there are a number of constraints on the aviation system. The key to overcoming this challenge is harnessing and utilising the rich streams of data that already exist. However, applying the traditional, product-led ATM approach to technology implementation will only result in the failure to leverage the value that the data represents.”

Like many other observers, the cANSO Executive committee member accepts the enormity of the task ahead. Legacy systems abound, and the pace of change is often described as glacial. Aviation, and ATM in particular, is not evolving at the necessary speed to accommodate the changes required.

“There is traction in the market now, but the industry must move faster,” says Cooper. “With it taking many years to implement a new system, the itch to be more agile will not be scratched any time soon. ANSPs need to be able to react quickly to the everchanging business environment, particularly new delivery models being created via emerging technologies."

Sporting chance

For Cooper, it is not just a matter of improving the timelines of existing initiatives such as SESAR and NextGen. Rather, the entire mindset surrounding future development must change. That means both the acceptance of existing non-aviation ideas and the courage to explore and exploit new ways of thinking.

"Aviation does have this feeling that it is unique, but, in reality, it is not," Cooper notes. "Of course, safety must always be a priority. That is a given. Nevertheless, the industry has a tendency to solve problems that have already been answered years before by other sectors."

Banking is a case in point. It has already discovered how to handle vast reams of data in real time using systems that must not fall over. Aviation can learn from banking's endeavours. It does need to start again from scratch.

"There is an amazing array of technology out there in other industries that can be applied to ATM," affirms Cooper. "Having joined Deloitte from one of the traditional vendors in ATM, I was amazed by the access to potentially gamechanging technologies that I now have. Areas such as advanced analytics, cognitive learning and artificial intelligence provide the opportunity to deliver a step change in service delivery.

"The role of the data scientist in ATM will evolve over the coming years and the benefits gained by ANSPs from analytics will far outweigh those from major systems changes. Importantly, in terms of the value they create, it will be done in sprints of days and weeks and not marathons of months and years."

Deloitte is pushing the boundaries on where it looks for inspiration too. It has an innovations partnership with McLaren Applied Technologies, part of the McLaren Group famous for its fast cars and Formula 1 team. The two companies are building a range of aviation products together, including one that is focused on delay management through the application of a data-centric approach to ATM.

The commonality between a Grand Prix and ATM may not be evident at first but centres on using data for predictive modelling. Before a Formula 1 race, McLaren runs simulations that account for the performance of the cars, the numerous other factors involved, like weather, and the fact that the unexpected can always occur. Every possible outcome is simulated, rehearsed and the best solutions modelled. That is rarely the case with ATM, Cooper asserts. Deloitte expects to have the first product available in 2018.

Arguably even more surprising, Deloitte is turning to elite sports people to trigger developments in ATM. The link? Human performance and how it can be applied to air traffic controllers. The idea of measuring individual performance is not to hold up people to scrutiny but to try to help controllers be at their best when they are in the tower and thereby minimise risk. It is a small but crucial element in safety.

Delivering outcomes

To date, the norm for new system deployment in ATM has been a technology-led methodology, which is not always cognisant of the total impact on the business. This has resulted in a large number of projects that have failed to live up to the vendor hype.

Cooper feels that it is time for the technology industry to put its money where its mouth is, taking a stake in the achievement of the business outcomes that the projects have been set up to deliver.

It is this gap in the market that led Deloitte to set up its Aviation Technology team at the start of 2017. Though still able to offer consultancy services in aviation, Deloitte has empowered the Aviation Technology team to conduct its business based on new commercial models that deliver customer value via outcomes, recognising the technology itself is irrelevant if customer value is not created by its implementation.

"Our objective is to conduct our business within the ATM market based on outcome-based commercial arrangements," Cooper affirms. "The traditional aviation approach is still based on large cheques, big deliverables and unfulfilled outcomes. We want to turn that model on its head by committing to results being achieved, and fast!"

The legacy approach to ATM technology implementation is failing to deliver value. Solutions that are positioned as product are inevitably delivered as bespoke deployments, driving up cost and complexity. Moreover, attracting the top talent from university becomes impossible when unravelling a legacy system is the only lure.

Slowly, but surely, innovation is choked out of the pipeline.

Data sharing

Focusing on the aviation chain's rich data sets will overcome these challenges, cooper suggests. There is data from the passenger, ground handler, airport, airline, ANSP and many others. concepts like airport collaborative decision making are helping to integrate information from the various partners but, for Cooper, this is just the tip of the iceberg and has taken far too long to progress.

Opt-in services have become the norm for a younger generation, for example, so more information is filtering in to the value chain all the time. This clear thread from booking to arrival can lead to greater efficiency and value for all.

"But the data available is beyond human processing power," says cooper. "And, at the moment, only the bare minimum is shared and only when it has to be. While acknowledging the issues around the commercial sensitivity of data, the benefit is undeniably in the open sharing of data between the appropriate stakeholders for the good of the network."

Driving ATM forward requires the right technology to allow ANSPs to capture the data, analyse it and then move on to predictive programmes and ultimately to artificial intelligence – all the while adapting the business to ensure it is best placed to utilise the optimisation on offer.

Deloitte's work with ANSPs is focusing on reference architecture with an integration layer to enable this new data-centric world. This open architecture will not only enable decisions to be made on data but also will lower barriers to entry and truly enable the best of breed approach to future development.

"It is talked about a lot and everyone attends the conferences and agrees it's the way forward, but you rarely see it in practice," says Cooper.

"The aviation value chain can break too easily because there are so many players concentrating on their own area and not on the links," he concludes. "The technology is available today to ensure that never happens. The mindset of the majority of the ATM industry is positive and understands the need to change. But to increase the pace of change, they must also accept that ATM is not as special as they think it is. We can learn from outside industries, especially in the need to become insight-driven."

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