Foundations laid for safe Upper Airspace Operations

If higher airspace is to be used safely and efficiently by aircraft in the future, then a clear understanding of the expected demand – and the procedures that need to be put in place – needs to be articulated.

Increased air traffic will likely result in more higher airspace operations in the future. While there are already lots of plans for these types of operations – which would take place above the level of today’s conventional aircraft operations - many of them remain at the early design phase. One of the key challenges at the moment has been to capture an accurate picture of what this demand will actually look like, to ensure that these operations can be seamlessly integrated into air traffic management plans. “This anticipated demand is very diverse, ranging from slow-moving high-altitude platform systems to suborbital hypersonic vehicles,” explains ECHO project coordinator Henk Hof from EUROCONTROL in Belgium. ECHO was funded within the framework of the SESAR Joint Undertaking, a public-private partnership set up to modernise Europe’s air traffic management system. “Space operations and launch/re-entry phases also have to be included in the demand analysis,” Hof points out.

Traffic management at higher airspace

The project began by researching existing procedures and concepts for air traffic management at higher airspace. From this, a broad framework of principles and assumptions was established. This built upon high-level principles agreed to at the European Higher Airspace Operations Symposium, held in April 2019. The project team also sought to involve as many stakeholders as possible in the initiative, as well as cooperating with military organisations’ regulatory task forces. “It was clear that many so-called new entrants come from outside the traditional aviation industry,” says Hof. “In order to reach as many stakeholders as possible, we held a number of consultations and workshops. All our findings were presented and discussed at these workshops, in order to achieve a good level of buy-in.”

New Concept of Operations outlined

Out of this work, a clearer shared understanding of future higher airspace demand was achieved. This will provide the basis for developing robust traffic management solutions. “A solid Concept of Operations (ConOps) was developed,” adds Hof. “This defines future operational roles, responsibilities, procedures and infrastructure required to support higher airspace demand over the short, medium and long term.” The ConOps covers everything from low- to high-speed activities to space missions. Preflight strategic deconfliction was conceptualised, in order to ensure the separation of operations on agreed trajectories and avoid collisions. “The results of this project are not an end point but a starting point,” says Hof. “This points the direction for the way ahead.”

Harmonised approaches to airspace operations

A follow-up project has been established to build on these results. For example, the ConOps, with its concept elements and operational requirements, will be validated on an incremental and continuous basis. “The principle of building traffic management according to demand is a key element that will need to be tested,” notes Hof. “We envisage limited services and infrastructure in areas of low demand, whereas in regions of medium- to high-density operations, users may require new traffic management services.” Regulatory coordination at the international level will also be needed for certain types of operations. Industrial associations are expected to play a key role in these discussions. “This project has helped Europe to develop a clear position on this issue,” remarks Hof. “This will feed into the work that is about to start within the International Civil Aviation Organization on higher airspace operations and will help to ensure a global harmonised approach where needed.”

This article originally published by CORDI and appeared in the Special Bulletin on 'Future Skies' published March 2024.
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