Conducting the orchestra in the sky

Nov. 22, 2018

Juan Besada is a telecommunication engineer and doctor, holding a professorship at Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM) since 2018, where he is part of the Information Processing and Telecommunications Center (IPTC). Having contributed to numerous SESAR research projects, Juan is now a member of the SESAR Scientific Committee, monitoring and providing expert oversight on the entire R&D programme.

What drew you to research and more specifically to ATM research?

An orientation to research came from my own family: my father being a University Professor, the general atmosphere at home rewarded study and critical thinking (my two siblings are following academic careers). So, after my MSc studies I enrolled in a PhD programme where I focused on radar and tracking techniques for ATC. My interests later expanded to research in ATC/ATM, and other data processing areas such as smart spaces, drones, etc.

What was the last "Eureka" moment you experienced/witnessed in the field of ATM research?

This one is difficult. I think few current applied research milestones deserve the classical meaning of “Eureka”, “I discovered it”. Instead, I believe more in the progressive and collaborative nature of research and development. And with regards to it, I think the progressive implementation of the U-space concept will drive ATM research towards a much more open scenario, resulting in surprising developments impacting citizens lives. Maybe, in 100 years, what appears like rudimentary developments will be seen as historical steps towards a new era in aviation, as we now see the Wrights’ first flight or jet engines developments. I really hope when I retire (around 2040) I will be able to say, for all us in ATM and drones research, “Eureka”, meaning instead “we have done it”: we have unleashed the potential of drones without compromising our skies, and jeopardising citizens’ safety, security or privacy. This will not be a sudden single Eureka, but the result of progressive efforts of thousands of anonymous scientists, engineers, programmers, pilots, controllers, lawyers, business people, politicians, etc.

Is air traffic management moving with the times?

With a background in ICT, I am used to extremely fast technological change. You just need to see the current rise of the internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence, big data, mobile applications, cloud-based and distributed computation, etc. By comparison, ATM seems to evolve at a glacial pace. But there are two distinct reasons for this. The first is safety, which results in necessary conservatism and long validation/certification processes. The second is the enormous complexity of the ATM system, characterised by the large number of involved human and computational actors and roles, its inherent distribution, and the number of interactions, layers of functionality, locally optimised procedures, etc.

Making all this work as a coordinated orchestra capable of managing increasing traffic while ensuring flight efficiency, reducing costs and improving the environmental footprint, is a huge collective task. Having said that, I believe in the coming years some of the aforementioned ICT advances will have a deep impact on ATM, especially U-space, and permeating all ATM.

What are the biggest challenges facing air traffic management today?

From my point of view, ATM may face a complex situation in the following years, as a result of a set of latent and future problems and fundamental limits. Some of those problems are: 1) the difficulty to incorporate state-of-art ICTs; 2) the fundamental limitations of the human to deal with increasing traffic and workload; 3) The appearance in the airspace of new vehicles, such as drones/RPAS; 4) Cybersecurity; and last but not least, 5) the difficulty to attract young talent to both technical and operational staff, as well as the low numbers of women in this ecosystem- ATM, understood in a classical way, is not “sexy” for the young generation nor for women.

In my view, though, drones and RPAS are at the same time a problem and a solution. They could be used as a powerful lever to make ATM “interesting” again.  

How do you see SESAR meeting those challenges

I think SESAR is really helping ATM community to speed up the incorporation of ICTs. System-wide information management (SWIM) and standardised data models, remote towers, or virtualised ATM are some examples of those developments. Cybersecurity is also appearing as a clear subject permeating SESAR. SESAR efforts of research in automation and human factors are oriented to alleviate and manage controller limitations, while taking advantage of human unique capabilities. Recent and near future research within SESAR, including applications of AI, cognitive computing or multimodal interfaces to ATM, may enable new horizons to the resolution of this problem. The development of U-space and RPAS related research is also progressing, in cooperation with Eurocontrol, EASA and the European Commission. Regarding the attraction of talent, I think the openness of SESAR to academia, the Engage knowledge transfer network, the SESAR Innovation Days and the Young Scientist Award are measures in the right direction, although I think more dissemination efforts on ATM are needed.

Are there developments taking place in other sectors that we should be closely following or even replicating?

The obvious answer to this are the developments taking place in ICT and with autonomous/connected car. ICT developments will continue to be the technical basis for ATM the modernisation of ATM, provided we are able to adapt the novelties on this area to our safety constrained context, while not losing perspective on the key role of human in the system. With respect to this, human-centred design approaches and cognitive computation research provide promising tools to support ATM by enabling faster, richer and adaptive human computer interactions. SESAR is doing interesting research in this area.

Regarding autonomous/connected cars, I find the ingenuity and far reaching view behind it really exciting. The people involved in this area are pushing the boundaries of AI, sensors, data fusion and communications to do something extremely hard. Something so hard as managing thousands of heterogeneous flying objects with extreme safety may well be the ‘U-space plus ATM’ scenario in a few decades. The similarities are obvious, but ATM specificities are important, and potential outreach implications are even greater, due to the impossibility to physically constrain airspace to order traffic and to separate it from goods and citizens, and to the extremely different 3D dynamics of different aircraft.

Can you mention a couple of projects in the current exploratory research portfolio that you feel really stand out and why?

There a lot of interesting projects in the recent exploratory research portfolio, but I will mention here just a few of them, which I am following more in detail. The first is AUTOPACE, devoted to the study of ATM automation and training needs for 2035+ and 2050+. I liked their courage to develop a vision on future operations, which is fostering discussion within SESAR Scientific Committee and will help to define far-reaching research roadmaps. The second is TBO-MET and its very promising work on meteorological disruptions in air traffic. Finally, especially given my current focus on drone applications, I find all U-space related research very interesting. Here I would mention CORUS project dealing with the concept of operations, but also others such as TERRA or PODIUM are worth following. In these projects SESAR is putting the first building blocks to the future European drone-based economy ecosystem by helping to enable safe and secure operations.