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How communications networks can make our skies safer

With passenger volume set to double in the next ten years and demand for new aircraft also expected to double by 2034, there is no doubt that demand for airspace capacity is soaring. This fast-growing demand can also be attributed to the advent of new entrants to the aviation ecosystem such as drones, which are becoming a common element in our skies, particularly over more densely populated areas. Accordingly, the air traffic management (ATM) environment is becoming increasingly complicated, and approaches to managing it need be become ever-more sophisticated.

As with most highly complex, and technical societal challenges, ATM systems depend on advanced information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructures – networks – to get the job done.

The air traffic management dance

You can think of modern air traffic management as a complicated dance that needs to be carefully choreographed. Three different types of services must work together in harmony to be able to shift aircraft from one bit or airspace to another, a process that happens hundreds or thousands of times a day in the busiest air corridors. Aeronautical Information Services (AIS), Air Traffic Flow Management (ATFM) and Air Traffic Control (ATC) services all need to work together seamlessly – failure to do so can mean delayed flights, re-routing or worse.

This dance demands state-of-the-art, high-performance networks that can operate at enormous scale, with extraordinarily low delay (or latency), nearly impregnable security and most importantly, meet stringent safety standards.  

Why is this necessary? Aircraft in flight send and receive huge amounts of data - some of it critical to safety - which needs to be shared between civil aviation authorities, airports, airlines, military authorities and other services that interact with passengers. This data is often critical to the safety and security of both passengers and crews, and as a result, requires mission-critical communications networks that can interconnect different components of the ATM system.

Old systems can’t support today’s requirements

In today’s landscape (or perhaps more appropriately, ‘airscape’) air navigation service providers (ANSPs) require uninterrupted, 24/7, ultra-high bandwidth connections and smooth interoperability between themselves and similar agencies managing neighboring airspace. They also need to scale up their capabilities to adjust to the projected increases in air traffic, while holding budgets in check, if not cutting costs.

Delivering on these challenges is complicated by the fact that many of the systems in use today are based on those originally developed in the 1940s and verging on obsolete. These systems simply can’t support the requirements we see today, such as the need to deliver real-time, 360-degree high definition video, which is increasingly common as centralized control towers serve multiple airports – very high-bandwidth, low-latency networks are becoming a necessity.

The reality is that ANSPs need access to more – more bandwidth to transport flight data, more capacity in data centers to process that data, and more flexibility so that networks that can scale up quickly as traffic volumes rise during particular parts of the day.

Switch to multi-service networks without disruption

In the past, ANSPs would traditionally build a dedicated communications network for each application. However, as the number of applications have proliferated - and become more bandwidth intensive - it has become more efficient and cost-effective to deploy a single communication network to support all of their services. In addition, most of the current ATC applications require an IP/MPLS platform.

Nokia has worked with many ANSPs that have moved to Internet Protocol/Multi-Protocol Label Switching (IP/MPLS) networks for these very reasons. IP/MPLS is a standards-based technology that can support the needed resiliency, differentiated quality of service (QoS) and exceptional security – end-to-end - while supporting multiple mission-critical services simultaneously.

As important, IP/MPLS networks not only support newer IP-based applications, they are also backward compatible with legacy services based on technologies such as time division multiplexing (TDM), enabling a smooth migration to IP over time. Applications that are already deployed such as VHF radio and radar can be moved onto the IP/MPLS network quickly and easily without disrupting operations.

The aviation world is facing enormous changes in the coming decade, from exponential traffic growth to the widespread use of drones in a wide array of applications. To maintain safety and security, while cost-effectively addressing growing demand and emerging use cases, new network infrastructures are absolutely required. Deploying a converged network can give ANSPs the strong foundation they need to address the security, reliability and performance requirements for years, perhaps decades to come.

Nokia taking to the skies

Nokia offers a unique set of air traffic management solutions, which we’ll be demonstrating at the upcoming World ATM Congress event from March 6 - 8, 2018 (IFEMA, Feria de Madrid, Spain, Booth #971). Please stop by and learn how we can help make your skies safer.  

Check out our website for more on Nokia Aviation Solutions!

Share your thoughts on this topic by joining the Twitter discussion with @nokianetworks using #Connectivity #Aviation #Security #EANLTE

Mervyn Harris

About Mervyn Harris

Mervyn leads the Global Air Traffic Management Business Development for Nokia. With over 25 years of experience in the air traffic management market (including UK National Air Traffic Services and SITA),  Mervyn has established himself as a world authority on the emerging concepts and services set to transform global air traffic management within the Communication, Navigational and Surveillance (CNS) environment. He was also a key contributor to the development of the Pan European Networks Services (PENS) in Europe and has played a vital role in similar projects globally.

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