Eugenio Diotalevi heads the Remotely Piloted Aircraft Task Force (RPATF) of the International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers Associations (IFATCA)
Do you ever see a time when controllers will have to manage drones, urban eVTOLs and piloted aircraft in the same airspace?
Probably in the future it will happen, but it all depends on the meaning of the word “controller” in this context. Because we are increasing information and that adds new considerations. First of all, there is the issue of liabilities – who is responsible for what. Many people are now working on that topic because the advent of artificial intelligence and machine learning will change many things, such as who takes decisions and who is responsible for the final effects of the decisions.
Then there is the question of supervision and the position of the human in the loop. Now controllers have to provide services, they are the final link in the chain, directly managing aircraft operations. But in the future, I’m not sure it will happen this way as technology will be different traffic demand will be higher.
I’ve been invited to some research projects and, I have to say the results suggest automation alone won’t be able to manage safely all levels of traffic to ensure separation between aircraft. So, we have to be cautious.
Do you see controllers taking more of a management role rather than controlling safe separations?
Yes, in UTM probably. This is also connected to the automation level of the airspace and of the airspace user. Automation and human control are connected.
Controllers are not against UTM; it is part of our job. But we want to know how to work with UTM and how to work with UTM without negatively affecting the ATC side. At the moment, the fact that we have to insert conventional aviation tracking information and so on increases our workload.
We are not scared about UTM replacing ATM but we need to know how the system will evolve.
Twenty years ago, there were three people in front of the radar screen, one controlling, one working on flight plans the third on planning. Now, there are two (to ensure the four-eyes principles) and in some terminal sectors just one ATCO: that’s part of an evolution.
We are available to work with anyone on this. In the research we have done so far on UTM programmes, managers have recognised the valuable inputs from the controller side. We have to think about the position we want for the human in this new system. For this IFATCA has prepared guidance material for the future joint cognitive human machine system work and will soon publish it for all the actors in ATM to become an assistance in developing new technology for ATM.
What are your major concerns around the introduction of U-Space and UTM?
The UTM world is expanding because of the economic opportunities and, of course no-one, especially in Europe, wants to lose this trade. But industries are so powerful that they can sometimes force the regulatory pace.
On the ATC side, we have 100 years of experience with many lessons learned, especially from accidents. With UTM the experience is not the same. So, our concern is about the power that industries can have and related issues of responsibility and liability, where there must be a clear distinction between ATM and UTM and who is responsible for what, at this stage of development.
The fact is that the workload for the controller will increase because nowadays we do not have a system which can handle all the information needed to manage UTM.
U-Space requires traffic information from traditional aviation sources and a means through which this information can be exchanged. This does not exist today.
So UTM will, for sure, increase the workload of the entire ATC sector.
Do you see there being any benefits for controllers? I’m thinking about increased digitalisation, where, ideally, a UTM system is entirely digital and entirely automated. Do you see anything of that feeding through to help the ATM system in the future?
Yes, we will probably gain benefits from this technology and from the work being done to enhance automation
IFATCA is an international organisation and we already have some experiences here, many of which are neutral. Flights are taking place at very low level or in remote areas, so there is not a real impact on ATC, also in countries where ATC is involved with UTM flight approvals or information exchanges.
Even though, people are still not satisfied about the regulatory aspects and the interaction that can happen between ATM and UTM. So, these issues are being investigated.
Do you see UTM one day replacing ATM?
I’m not sure “replacing” is the correct word. They will probably merge. ATM is now able to manage both manned and unmanned aviation but UTM is, let’s say, more focused. The architecture of UTM will probably become a common architecture for both. So perhaps “unified” is a better way to describe it.
But at the moment, the regulatory framework is not ready for that – at the moment it’s an industry dream.
If you want to incentivise the development of UTM you must understand the limits; UTM service providers are not certified to handle manned aviation.
We have several examples in Europe of common UTM and ATM providers, but I think the services will remain separate for many years.
Are you happy with the way that institutionally you’re being involved in the evolution and the development of UTM and U-Space?
Partially. As an international organisation, we represent more than 50,000 controllers around from more than 140 countries. So, we’ve had good and bad experiences. Of course, we are involved at the higher international level, at ICAO, and we collaborate with IATA, CANSO, IFALPA, and several international organisations.
There are some regions, such as the USA and Europe, where IFATCA is, let’s say, well involved in developing process, and we are engaged in several projects. But unfortunately, there are other regions that are not, in my view, realising the importance and the benefits of having air traffic controllers involved in the development of UTM or any system related to ATM.
Despite that, we are trying to get involved and engaged within governments and industry to provide our point of view from the start, because the earlier, the better.
Where would you like to be more involved?
Probably in Africa, although we are engaging with several countries there, and maybe South East Asia. We are all volunteers in IFATCA and we cannot be present in every country because of time and resources, but we are doing our best.
But Africa is one of the promised lands for UTM with many companies investing. We have to be present there to support controllers’ position.
Do you see UTM is being part of a much wider digitalisation of airspace management, going all the way from the ground to Space? If so, how that’s going to be developed. And what is your role going to be?
Yes. This is really complicated and involves a lot of talking both inside IFATCA and with all other organisations we are involved with. If the aim is the digitalisation of the world, I see different levels of services connected to different levels of automation. So, we have to change the flight rules and airspace classification accordingly. And we have to change procedures and, well, everything.
I don’t see that segregation – established now in Europe, for example – between UTM and ATM will be the solution for the future. None wants that because this is not an integrated system. But I do think that new technologies and procedures introduced to manage high altitude operations and trajectory-based operations (TBO), for example, can be important for the future.
We have to investigate further the TBO concept. If automation is to take the lead, at least in organising airspace and airflow, then automation needs a system that is able to handle huge amounts of traffic along with uncertainties and contingencies, such as poor weather, for example. All these under the big umbrella of the joint cognitive human machine system IFATCA is supporting.