The IFATS project proposed the study of a revolutionary concept for a future air transportation systems by adding as much onboard automation and autonomy to the aircraft as necessary to fulfil the overall requirements of improved efficiency, capacity and safety of air transportation.
The enhancement of the efficiency is achieved through a network centric architecture of the overall system. All the various air and ground components of the system communicate permanently with one another :
- aircraft fly autonomously pre-programmed flight plans using sophisticated onboard computing and sensor systems. Ground operators are responsible for the overall situation, location of aircraft, and tracking of their intentions;
- functionalities of the system are flexibly distributed between the ground and aircraft, relying on intensive data communication capabilities between aircraft, and between aircraft and the network of ground stations.
In order to improve the safety and the security of the system, current pilots' and controllers' tasks are modified to lower both the risk of human errors and direct terrorist threat. The elements of the system communicate digitally: pilots can be removed from the cockpit and the controller's work is transformed into system monitoring actions.
Additional features are added like direct assistance from the aircraft manufacturer for in flight aircraft diagnosis and remote maintenance.
The central goals of this project are:
- to define a technically viable concept of an air transportation system where aircraft would be operating autonomously monitored by an automatic control supervised by ground operators;
- to define autonomous operation procedures and optimise task sharing between the operators, the automated ground control system, the autonomous onboard computing system and an onboard engineer (if needed);
- to determine the minimum requirements and functionalities of the onboard system, to ensure safe operation in the case of communication loss with the ground control system;
- to perform a safety analysis of the IFATS concepts and provide guidelines to certification issues;
- to identify the difficulties necessary to overcome to build such an air transport system, in both technical and cultural aspects;
- to find out an adequate level of automation for a future system;
- to analyse a procedure to migrate from the present situation to the future system.
The IFATS project proposed to rather radical methodology to get a view on what could be the Air Transport of the Future. Instead of starting from the current situation and deriving the future along a consensual evolutionary process, the basic feature of the IFATS project has been to define an air transport system going as far as possible into automation. The approach that has been taken is purely technical: thus, the concept that has been defined is a 'technically possible' extremely automated system, but not necessarily a 'likely to happen' system.
The project is structured as follows: first, the technical issues of the automation of the ATS functions are identified and analysed, from the ground segment, the air segment and the communication perspectives. Then, a safety analysis, combined with adapted simulations of the various parts of the system, is performed in order to identify the gaps in the proposed concept. Based on these results, the overall IFATS concept is refined and enables determination of what could be an acceptable future ATS. At last, a roadmap toward this future ATS is proposed.
The key result of the project is a comprehensive view of what could be this extreme fully automated ATS solution. A clear understanding of its benefits and drawbacks has been obtained.
From this assessment, recommendations have been made for future research and development aiming at making possible an evolution of the present air transport system towards a future one able to withstand the forecast traffic growth without any compromise on safety and security.
Nevertheless, beyond the IFATS project results, the need to go deeper in the concept analysis has been identified to prove the performance of a highly automated air transport system. This can be obtained through the modelling and the simulation of the planet-wide operation of such a system. To this end, a follow-on phase of the project has been submitted to the Commission in 2007.
Not of a technical orientation, but, primarily, policy recommendations
The IFATS project has demonstrated that looking far into the future is worthwhile to progress in the definition of the future of the air transport system.
Such a methodology enables the avoidance of any show stoppers that may be temporary or only based on unjustified reluctance (cultural and social issues are a good illustration).
Prospective research is a must in Europe: advanced prospective research projects really give a vision of the potential long term future, which is a driver to building our industrial strategy.