Air Traffic Management Standardization and Virtual Centers - Anna von Groote - EUROCAE

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Posted by Vincent Lambercy
Welcome to one more episode of Radar Contact. Today we will discuss a hot topic in air traffic management, which is virtual centers. And for that, my guess is Anna von Groote, who is the director general of EUROCAE, the organization producing standards. Anna, welcome to the program.

Thank you very much for the invitation, Vincent.

So before we go into virtual centers, can you please introduce yourself for the audience? Explain where you come from, what was your career path so far and the like?

Sure. I joined EUROCAE in 2011 originally as a technical program manager. Then as the organization grew, I took on responsibility as director technical programs and was appointed director general of EUROCAE last year in February. So this is a great place to work. As you can see, I've been here for over 10 years already and a few more to go, hopefully with the members, the experts. It's great to work in the groups and we have such an effective team in Paris and it's really an honor to lead it.

Good. I'd like to start with a very naive question. I started working in ATM as an engineer myself, 22 something years ago. And basically the setup was we had the technical room where all the computers downstairs and upstairs we had the control center. And basically you have the computers on one side, the controllers on another side. What is different between this setup and a virtual center?

Good question. Not so naive, but very good question. The virtual center really refers to the decoupling of the air traffic management data services such as flight data surveillance and weather information from the physical controller working position. So just taking it a step further from what you've experienced with the data center in the basement and the controllers sitting above it, but for example, the flight data and surveillance processing and communication systems could be hosted in a data center with a controller working positions located in a separate remote operations center with network connectivity between the two. And the virtual center really brings a lot more integration. It brings the possibility for the air traffic services to be able to relocate from one operation center to another very quickly where different operation centers have a standardized connectivity to the data center that would be supplying the systems and data needed to deliver the service, all with the aim to really deliver greater flexibility when it comes to organizing air traffic control operations. And in doing so, a lot more seamless cost efficient service provisions to the airlines and other airspace users. And really this is something that that's been led by SESAR through the different projects that they have running, they've they've established a lot of these ground groundwork and taking it further is something moving to this more integration, more integrated approach is really the aim here and the added value.

Could that also mean that in term of organization we could have what so called ADSPs? So data service providers and ANSPs would focus on providing the service and could say, okay, for this year for my flight plan service, I will use that company for radio, I will use that other company and even really split the organizations as well.

It could mean indeed decoupling the service provision from the actual ANSP air traffic service provision. Nevertheless I think the idea is that there will still be a very robust or the need for a very robust, resilient infrastructure and service provision in terms of quality, integrity, et cetera, that will need to be assured so that we have the level of service that we need.

And could that mean, pushing the game to the extreme, that air traffic controller could start working from home at some point or don't you see that coming?

Although with covid, we've all worked from home a little bit, I don't see this as happening for air traffic controllers. And I don't think that this is in the plans of any of the SESAR projects or initial in implementations that we see via traffic service still needs to be delivered from a facility with a robust infrastructure such as uninterruptable, power supplies, highly reliable and secure network, physical security for access controls to the operations area. So I don't think sitting at home with my laptop and headset with my internet connection being what it is I could have the same level of robustness that would be needed or even some specialized equipment, which is just not as movable as just a laptop. I don't think we'd have the same level of robustness. So I don't think home office is in the plans for air traffic control any time soon.

Yeah, completely agree on that. Also, looking at human factors and different things and training and basically that course needs to be still on site but maybe not always on the same site and that would be the point.

Exactly. And that is the point really you need the facility, but you don't need to be at the same facility the whole time. Yeah.

What other benefits do you see in virtual centers?

Really the flexibility, the scalability, the resilience part. Virtual center provides a level of flexible configuration of operational systems, which is not possible with the ATM infrastructure of today, which is more hardwired if we can say. So data services can be located across different locations, potentially even in different countries, potentially supporting multiple operation centers which brings improvements also in terms of system redundancy. In case of a facility being unavailable for any reason for a certain amount of time the services can be moved to another location relatively easily. Though there's of course a lot of complexity involved with that. So on many different levels, but nevertheless, the option would be there. The other benefit I guess is cost efficiency through rationalization and systems of services standardization workload balancing across centers. For example, consolidating operations overnight or to times of low traffic improved harmonization and information sharing across boundaries.
So there's a lot of benefits in this respect, which I see. But I think there's also still a lot of obstacles we're not quite there yet. On the technology side. The A NSPs will ultimately need to migrate from legacy systems to new ATM systems, which can support those virtual center operations. Different, ANSPs in Europe will be at different stages in implementation of the products and life cycles. So the implementation would need to be synchronized or at least coordinated to gain the full benefits of what would be possible. But also we need to learn and how we work together in this virtual center concept how we share data, how we provide services maybe across borders to a greater extent than what we see today access to infrastructure et cetera, et cetera between ANSPs and all stakeholders involved. And I think there's also a learning curve on the human side that needs to come in and that needs to happen. And it's really important that we take every stakeholder group with us in this process. And I think here it really is a process of learning and of moving forward together in order to reap the full benefits of what can be a virtual center implementation in the future.

You mentioned working across border a couple of time, and I think that could be one of the major obstacles. I mean with the exception of Maastricht UAC, where you have different countries working together. I mean everything with ATC is on the edge of air defense and military and sovereignty. So do you see a trend or is every country thinking, oh yeah, we will do a virtual center. I will run it for you, and nobody wants to give the airspace away. How do you see that coming?

It's a very good question. I think again, it's a process. It's a learning process. And I think with time we will see first implementations coming we will already see them. You mentioned master which is a very good example of where we share information cross border and between several member states of the eu but when we're clearly not there yet, it's a process of moving forward together.

Now more concretely, speaking about EUROCAE, can you as an organization bring to the table? What are you specifically working on today?

You might know EUROCAE is European leader for industry standards in aviation. And our main goal is to build state-of-the-art standards building on the expertise of our members standards that are fit for purpose, to be adopted internationally, support operational development and regulatory processes, and address global aviation challenges. And I think especially this last part is important especially as we look at the status of R&D in virtual center and the status of industrialization implementations there, there's always this sweet spot which we have to find between when do we start the standardization activity compared to when would it be too late or too even too early to start one. So what we did in the case of virtual centers was we started on a journey with a very open workshop which we had oh, about two and a half years ago. In the meantime with over 70 participants in which we exposed what the discussions had been in the technical advisory committee and the council on the topic and where we proposed the work program to the stakeholders.
And we really shaped the work program together with the stakeholders to make sure that we get it right because the standards are not written by me or by my colleagues in the TAC, but really by the experts. And we want to make sure that the experts are involved from the very beginning. So what we did based on with this workshop, we created a working group, working group 122 with the aim to develop standards for virtual center services. But we didn't start right away with standards. We decided to start off with a report called Virtual Center Strategy for Standardization phase one. This report in the meantime is published as ER 26 and is available at our eShop for download for those who are interested to read it. It's a really good report. I enjoyed reading it because it really provides the whole context and of the virtual center concept and proposes a detailed work program for virtual center service standardization.
So why did we do it this way? We need to look at the current context. We need to look at the status of current R&D activities, planned R&D activities, industrialization activities, the regulatory environment whether there is one or not, and what's planned stakeholders needs. And because in the end, the stakeholder, the standards will only be good if the people can use them, and we need to make sure that the standards we develop are relevant. So in the end, this report proposes a roadmap for standardization while remaining really focused on the outcomes in terms of perceived benefit or needs of these standards. So we'll follow a phase approach with priorities that are being discussed further in the report and dependencies also. And this report will really be the foundation of the entire work program going forward. I can only recommend each and every one of you to have a look read through.
It's a really informative piece of work and a comprehensive review of the situation. Following that the group is now working on a second deliverable, which is called a taxonomy of services for virtual centers. So this focuses really on the identification of services and interfaces between the various entities. We were speaking before about different entities having to share data, having to share information, and this really focuses on this. This will ensure that we have a common language, if you will, for the next stage of standards development, where we will direct our efforts than really more towards the performance and interoperability requirements for the various elements of a virtual center. We're working very closely with SESAR, with the SESAR 3 joint undertaking as well as the partners in the relevant SESAR projects to ensure alignment of the R&D that is currently underway with the standards development and the working group and our standardization activities that are planned.
Indeed, many of the working Group 122 members are currently involved in the SESAR R&D. But I'd like to emphasize also that the working group is a lot broader than the SESAR work both in terms of stakeholders involved as well as in terms of geographical outreach as in the working group we have stakeholders from all over Europe, obviously but also the US, Asia Pacific, et cetera. So it's a lot broader than the SESAR project itself. So as far as the timing of release of our standards for virtual centers, there's always a question that comes immediately afterwards, we really need to ensure that we go hand in hand and sync this to the R&D that we don't constrain the R&D standards to build on for future steps, and also having the standards available when they are needed for manufacturers and customers to move towards industrialization and widespread implementation.

That's really interesting. Just want to go in one slight deeper question. One of the ANSPs that is quite advanced with virtual centers is skyguide in Switzerland. Are there an inspiration for you? Are they're participating in the group or is there a risk that they go in a slightly different direction than the standard will be an if needs to retrofit afterwards?

Indeed skyguide is one of the most active participants within this working group. They've been co-leading or leading this working group. Philippe Chauffoureaux of skyguide has been the chair of the working group at its initiation and up until the end of the phase one feasibility study, at which point he retired from skyguide, unfortunately for us, but good for him. But skyguide is still very actively involved and definitely a driver in this area.

Nice. So I think they will not diverge and the standard will be in the same direction. Thank you for that. Now to close up, we have our typical two questions in the end, how do you see the future of virtual center and ATM, generally speaking, five years from now, but also 50 years from now to project us in a far away future?

Wow, having to pull out my glass ball now. The R&D that is undertaken by SESAR, it's members and partners is ongoing and I think we have very promising results there. And also see early testing and implementation starting which is really promising. We see several ANSPs really moving the concept, pushing the concept further. So I think that within the next five years, we'll see a lot more of this. I hope, I expect that we have the standards developed for the virtual center services that are needed to allow for that initial implementation and hopefully that we can support the process moving forward. Certainly, as I said before, it, it'll have to be an evolution. It's not a revolution. It won't be done within a few days nor within five years. I think we'll still see that we're within that process still five years down the road. As for 50 years, I don't dare to make any main or any huge steps to the future, but I think only time will tell. But I do see that that things are moving towards more virtualization, ultimately towards virtual centers for sure, and I do hope that we can contribute our part through the standards and facilitate the interoperability on a European and global scale.

Anna, thank you very much for being our guest today. I encouraged anybody who does not know much about EUROCAE to visit your website to learn more about the organization, get access to the documents and so on. Thank you very much.

Thank you for the invitation Vincent.