AI for Increasing the Effectiveness of Air Travel

Redesigning flexible airspace sectors using artificial intelligence (AI) is the goal of a new European research project including Lancaster University. The initiative intends to increase the capacity and efficiency of air travel.

AI for Increasing the Effectiveness of Air Travel

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By automating and enhancing the flexibility of the dynamic airspace design process, experts want to decrease emissions, shorten travel times, and ease the burden of air traffic controllers. These goals will be achieved through the application of machine learning, mathematical modeling, and optimization approaches.

Centro de Referencia de Investigación, Desarrollo e Innovación ATM, A.I.E. (CRIDA) is in charge of the €2 million SMARTS project, which is supported by Horizon Europe. Researchers from Lancaster University Management School, NATS, the German Aerospace Center, Eurocontrol, Enaire, and Ecole Nationale de l’Aviation Civile (ENAC) also contributed to the project.

There are around 8000 aircraft carrying 600,000 people across UK skies every day – but with no marked lanes above our heads, it is hard to envisage how complicated the air travel system is, and how complex a challenge it can be for teams to manage on the ground.

Guglielmo Lulli, Professor, Department of Management Science, Lancaster University

He added, “Airspace is divided into sections that are managed by individual air traffic controllers, responsible for their own particular regions. Dividing up these airspace sectors is quite a manual task, and options for how they are divided is limited by a small number of possible configurations. However, getting the sectors right is crucial as the decision impacts passenger delays, air traffic controllers’ workload, and emission savings.

He further stated, “By redesigning how air space sectors are configured will not only ensure a system that is more flexible to unlock the right amount of capacity at the right moment, with maximum efficiency – but will also ensure air traffic controllers can handle the associated workload comfortably.

While automation has been explored in this area before, this project is the first to attack the airspace design and configuration problem at its very core – by redesigning the elementary airspace components which make up our airspace sectors,” Lulli further stated.

The International Air Transport Association projects that air traffic will grow by 3% annually and reach nearly 8 billion passenger journeys annually by 2040. As a result, enabling additional airspace capacity is a critical priority for the industry to address the serious capacity challenges air travel currently faces.

The SMARTS project team will develop precise forecast models for air traffic demand and capacity provision by first carrying out extensive research to gain a good knowledge of the air traffic system. They will then seek to create creative sector configuration plans that are robust and dynamic to design, flex, and adapt as necessary, employing machine learning and custom algorithm development.

We aim to devise a solution that is robust and will explicitly consider demand uncertainty. By taking full advantage of airspace potential, our system will require less air traffic controller resources per flight, will increase the productivity of the system and ultimately produce more cost-effective capacity management processes.

Eva Puntero, Research and Development Engineer, CRIDA

Puntero further added, “We hope the project will also have indirect benefits to airport users too in the form of more punctual flights, improved reliability of flight schedules and, if it helps reduce service provision costs for airlines, potentially a reduction in fares for passengers in future.

The SMARTS team wants to enhance airspace throughout Europe and anticipates making the study findings available to multiple nations.

The project began at the end of 2023 and will last until 2026.


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