Air traffic control (ATC) appears headed for a major change — a great big change.
This will certainly affect your flying, at least in some passage of time.
Why is this happening? One word: Drones.
“Drones” is a catch-all term for unmanned aircraft lifted by multiple prop-spinning powerplants. Usually they are electric. Today, smaller drones sold for photography or fun perform well. Man-carrying drones, on the other hand, remain a novelty; extremely few people have ever flown in one.
“Infotech” is shorthand for information technology. More explicitly, it implies the use of data and computers to enable something that is leaner, faster, smaller, lighter, denser, or cleaner — often all at once. When infotech enters a field, say biology (“biotech”), things can improve, not by 5% or 10%, but by double, triple, or by tenfold.
When infotech touches an industry, things change very quickly. Ask flip-phone makers like Nokia how things shifted after Apple introduced its iPhone. Some readers may not even remember Nokia, though the company was once the mobile handset maker for the world.
Infotech is coming to air traffic control…as it must.
In an article about NASA’s exploration of the future of air traffic control, Motherboard.vice.com writer Kate Fane reported, “According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there are about 5,000 passenger aircraft in the sky at any given time, which require 521 aircraft towers, 25 air route traffic control centers, and 6,000 airway transportation systems specialists to coordinate.”
“Meanwhile, the FAA also predicts that the number of unmanned drones registered in its database could surge to more than 6 million by 2021 — a fleet of robots that will have to be taken into account when we’re divvying up the skyline,” Fane continued.
The FAA reported in 2018 that the number of registered drones passed 1 million.
Fane’s phrase “divvying up the skyline” — where skyline means airspace — can sound rather threatening to current pilots. Many pilots have told me they worry about drones or multicopters interfering with the enjoyment of their aircraft, or worse, causing safety problems. Very few have been reported to date, but this new type of aerial vehicle is barely past the starting line.
Regardless of concerns — real or speculative — the new flying machines identify a weakness in our current ATC system, great as it has been for aviation safety. Current ATC practices demand many highly-paid controllers and other personnel staffing hundreds of facilities with a need for increasingly sophisticated equipment.
The present ATC system is costly and, while achieving enviably good results, depends on thousands of humans to move the aircraft of today. Yet the numbers of vehicles intended to populate the airspace may grow by 30 times. We have nothing to compare in the 115 years since Orville and Wilbur first took to the skies above Kitty Hawk.
What happens when the number of airborne vehicles increases from thousands or tens of thousands of conventional aircraft to millions of new flying machines, ranging from photo drones to multicopters carrying commuters around metro areas?
When you imagine large numbers of aircraft filling the sky, the present system begins to look creaky. Already, many criticize the FAA for using out-dated computers and other equipment with a federal employment system that creates high costs.
Can the current ATC system handle the coming swarm? Can technology offer a solution?
The Motherboard writer reported, “NASA is already developing an air-traffic control framework that could track unmanned flying cars that fly under 500′. As reported elsewhere, the NASA system is meant to be automated. NASA will finish its research by 2019, and hand over ideas for the FAA to implement no later than 2025.”
What seems some years away requires planning today.
A need for change is clear.
“The pace of technological advancement in this industry is faster than anything we’ve had to deal with,” FAA Acting Administrator Dan Elwell told Wired magazine recently.
As pilots know, ATC is handled by skilled professionals in near constant communication with pilots aloft. Coordinating the flight paths of thousands of aircraft, helping them navigate inclement weather, avoid traffic conflicts, and prepare for landing is a large task. Scaling up such a human workforce to monitor millions of new airborne vehicles is unrealistic.
Instead of hiring many thousands of additional humans, experts are proposing systems that could communicate with all other flying vehicles and automatically redirect them if they fly too close to another aircraft. Developing such an intricate system cannot take years. The pace of infotech inserting itself into aviation is daunting.
To address the need to move quickly, the FAA has engaged industry directly.
According to a report in the Wall Street Journal at the end of December 2018, “A new Federal Aviation Administration program, spelled out in a Federal Register notice earlier this month, envisions creating up to eight company-financed prototype projects to examine various options. The goal is to verify technologies and provide real-world data to hasten broader regulatory steps aimed at significantly expanding commercial uses of unmanned aircraft.”
Still in Development
The wrench in the gears for this grand scenario is the state of technology driving these new flying machines. Here are a few examples.
Batteries: The weakest link most experts define is battery energy density, which remains far below that of gasoline. Batteries will improve dramatically, many believe, but how far in the future is that aspiration?
Software Robustness: While all these machines can talk to one another and while $1,000 drones today are remarkably adept at avoiding in-flight problems — for example, landing themselves before they run out of electric power — all this depends on software. Few doubt software will eventually meet the challenge (becoming highly reliable, if not nearly perfect) but when will developers reach this point?
Infrastructure: In its simplest form, urban transport by multicopter could save many hours of commuting but where will all these air taxis land? Where and when will they stop to recharge?
Legal System and Best Practices: As the self-driving car promoters have discovered, legal systems lack experience and precedence about accidents involving autonomous vehicles. Imagine the added complications when a multicopter aircraft falls from the skies, as one surely will some day.
Public Acceptance: This may be the greatest hurdle. A recent survey reported, “63% of 508 U.S. adults polled said they are very concerned about the overall safety of flying cars.”
Balancing that the survey found “Some 41% said they were very interested in owning a flying car, and 17% felt very positive about flying cars in general.”
If I am honest, I can see myself flying in one of these multicopters one day. Some readers may feel similarly.
Small multicopters might be highly enjoyable with super maneuverability, no airport needed, fantastic visibility, relatively quiet operation, and the chance to hover over a scene of interest. In time, they may prove themselves safe through the use of redundancy and adapting back-up systems that are already proven, such as airframe parachutes.
A brave new year and a brave new world of aviation are coming. The new fleet could potentially become so much bigger than the current general aviation fleet that what we think of a high state-of-the-art in air traffic control today could become as irrelevant as Nokia did for cell phones.
A brave new world starts in 2019. Happy New Year!