Is the air traffic visible from the ISS?

NASA and DLR are researching the transformation of the air traffic system

The integration of new types of aircraft in air traffic requires significant changes to the air traffic system. In the coming years, the US aerospace authority NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR) will jointly research how the air traffic system can be redesigned to meet these new challenges. To this end, the two institutions signed an agreement on close research cooperation in 2020.

An air transport system for everyone

In the last few decades, the air transport system has coped well with the steady growth of conventional air transport thanks to continuous further developments. In the future, however, new users such as light aircraft, air taxis (Urban Air Mobility), unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) of different sizes and supersonic aircraft will create new transport options and place additional requirements on our current air traffic management system. The air transport system is therefore facing a multitude of completely new challenges as new types of aircraft bring with them additional tasks, technical skills and modes of operation.

"Such an air traffic mix raises a number of new questions about the way in which such aircraft will interact in the air," says Prof. Dr. Dirk Kügler, head of the DLR Institute for Flight Guidance. “As part of this agreement, NASA and DLR will jointly design the framework for a future air traffic system that offers the operational versatility required by the new participants. Our new system should be scalable, flexible and resilient without impairing the safety of current or future aircraft. "

For example, due to their special characteristics, agile air taxis will be able to move differently through the airspace than conventional air traffic today. Their size and flight characteristics promise advantages in urban environments up to and including "flying around" traffic jams. Operating such air traffic participants safely and efficiently without restricting the previous traffic is, however, a demanding task in which a large number of boundary conditions must be observed.

As part of the cooperation, German and American researchers will jointly develop tools and carry out high-speed simulations for a future, comprehensive airspace and traffic management system. Both will help to gain a deeper understanding of the challenges of mixed traffic and to adequately evaluate newly developed concepts for this system. The aim of the cooperation and the joint work is to arrive at innovative solutions in Europe and the USA as quickly as possible, which do justice to the forecast large number of new air traffic participants and at the same time do not impair further growth in traditional aviation.

While NASA has been developing, integrating and validating a comprehensive traffic management system for drones (UTM - Unmanned Traffic Management) in the US since 2015, a similar concept, called U-space, is being set up across countries in Europe. Both concepts are aimed at integrating new air traffic participants safely and efficiently into the existing airspace. A mutual exchange of experiences, strategies and technologies enables both partners to shape the transformation of the air traffic system in the best possible way.

Partners rely on successful preparatory work

As part of the collaboration, NASA will build on the preparatory work of the Air Traffic Management - eXploration (ATM-X) project. In the project, NASA was already working successfully on a service-oriented architecture for a UAS traffic management system. Such an architecture provides that individual services for unmanned aircraft are provided by users, service providers and authorities and seamlessly integrated into an overall system. In cooperation with DLR, this paradigm is now also being applied to all other airspace users.

For its part, DLR relies primarily on knowledge and experience from the ongoing City-ATM project. As part of this project, DLR has been working on the definition and validation of operational and technical concepts for operating drones in urban areas since 2018. The focus is on the provision of information, traffic flow control and the development of the infrastructure for communication, navigation and monitoring.

New cooperation, established cooperation

The new cooperation on drones and other new participants in air traffic that has now been adopted continues a longstanding cooperation between DLR and NASA in this area. NASA's Ames and Langley research centers and the DLR Institute for Flight Guidance in Braunschweig have been working together on the integration of systems for approach, departure and taxiing traffic management since 2012.