Sabine Taillardat has been with SITA for four years, and more recently started leading SITA's Aircraft Communications portfolio, mainly oriented around cockpit communications and data exchanges between the aircraft and the ground systems. Her portfolio enables cooperation in the industry and is the backbone for SITA’s other aircraft portfolios. Here she discusses some of the key industry challenges she and her team are tackling.
What do you like most about your role?
As I am still relatively new in the role, what I really appreciate – and am most impressed with – is the level of expertise and knowledge on the subjects we have in the teams, and people’s willingness to support and collaborate to help our customers. This goes for both my own Product team, and among the Aircraft Comms core team, across Engineering, Operations, and Sales disciplines.
Altogether, we work on offering services that are critical for the industry, managing current technologies and ensuring performance, capacity, coverage, and scalability while investigating new technologies with industry players. With the solutions we provide, we stimulate more collaboration within the aviation industry, supporting the need for further efficiency and sustainability.
What are the main challenges in aircraft communications today?
Every time a flight takes to the sky there’s a significant amount of communications and data exchanged between the pilots, air traffic control, the operation teams on the ground, and the aircraft itself. Going forward, the networks will be put under pressure to cope with even further data capacity requirements, driven by three prime factors:
Firstly, there’s the thriving growth of aviation. Airbus forecasts 40,850 new aircraft will be required over the next 20 years to cope with public demand for air travel.
Secondly, the latest generation of aircraft, such as the A350, neos and B787, have increased data transmission needs as they can generate much more data compared with previous aircraft via their numerous onboard sensors which monitor the performance of various aircraft systems from engines to landing gear. Sensors, and the data they generate, are indispensable for predictive maintenance, fuel management, and for reducing operational costs and curbing emissions.
And thirdly, we will need to expand and upgrade network capacity to get ready for future air vehicles such as cargo delivery drones and flying taxis – both piloted and autonomous types – which will generate massive amounts of data too.
At SITA we continuously work at improving our network infrastructure so as to ensure availability of capacity and performance, enabling more data exchange capability and more efficient communications.
What is the Aircraft Communications portfolio about?
SITA’s Aircraft Communications portfolio supports airlines and Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) with real-time data and communications, to and from aircraft, during all phases of flight and for many different types of usage. Whether it's for flight operations, information to the flight crew, maintenance data or communication for the Air Traffic Control domain, our air-ground communication systems manage millions of data exchanges every day, all across the world. The information is then shared among relevant stakeholders, enhancing the operation of the aircraft, the airspace, and the airport.
To support our communication solutions, we have deployed, and continuously develop, a global, reliable, and secure network of over 2,500 Very High Frequency (VHF) stations, complemented by satellite connectivity via our partners, required for flight coverage over oceans. With this network, SITA is unique in the industry in supporting over 300 airlines, 17,700+ commercial air transport and business aviation aircraft and 90 ANSPs, while fostering safe and efficient aircraft operations.
At the same time, SITA is working on the ‘Future of Datalink Technologies’, collaborating with major partners and industry players to assess, define and test additional connectivity solutions and ensure we can continuously support aviation’s ever-increasing communication needs going forward.
What are the advantages of having a connected aircraft?
A connected aircraft ensures safe, efficient and optimized operational use of both the aircraft and of the airspace.
Connectivity serves a wide variety of needs: flight plan optimization, maintenance support and engine reports, software updates – and much more. Specifically, a connected aircraft enables communication with the pilot, informing them of the flight conditions, supporting them in making effective decisions on alternative flight plans for instance, to avoid turbulence or other weather obstacles ahead. Such information is essential for flight safety, a smoother journey for passengers, and can result in significant fuel savings – thereby lowering emissions while reducing operational costs.
Historically, communication between aircraft and ground has been performed using voice. With the Datalink system we provide, those communications – which rely on data exchanges – can instead be automated and standardized, increasing the clarity of the messages and the amount of information being shared, and the efficiency of these exchanges.
For example, thanks to Datalink communication, some messages can be automatically sent at various stages of the flight (when the aircraft is out of the gate, take-off, landing and arrival at the gate). Accurate information of aircraft movements is critical for many various stakeholders on the ground (airports, airlines, air traffic controllers, and service providers) to plan gate assignment, optimize rotation time, and predict and calculate delays.
There are myriads of messages an aircraft sends when it is connected, and the more connected an aircraft is, the more sustainable the aircraft operations become.
How does communication support ANSPs?
A dominant constraint facing the growth of aviation is airspace congestion. As airspace densifies, ANSPs need to adapt by introducing new practices which require more real-time updates and data exchanges to optimize their airspace.
To support this, SITA is providing Controller Pilot Data Link Communication (CPDLC) solutions to enable ANSPs to digitally manage airspace efficiently, maintain contact with aircraft, provide flight clearance instructions, and perform other procedures. The ANSPs benefit from the use of pre-formatted and standardized messages which prevent ambiguity and remove uncertainty during exchanges. This also saves time by simplifying acknowledgement procedures, instead of readbacks for each communication. This enables controllers and pilots to focus on other tasks while data communication happens in the background. Consequently, the controller can manage more aircraft per unit of time over the same airspace/sector.
Which further contribution for flight optimization can we expect with the Datalink system for ANSPs?
A concept being developed in the Air Traffic Management industry consists of creating an efficient and detailed trajectory plan for aircraft, shared over the network to all relevant actors on the ground, allowing better predictability in airspace management. It does so by automatically downlinking the trajectory that the aircraft will follow as stored in the onboard system. This information will be used for end-to-end trajectory optimization across several airspaces, factoring in weather conditions and other flight traffic variables – instead of having each ANSP carry out local optimization, which prevents end-to-end optimization. This will, eventually, lead to shorter and better planned routes, resulting in less fuel burned for airlines, and fewer Greenhouse Gas emissions.
The concept relies on tons of data to predict and share multiple and simultaneous aircraft trajectories and will be highly demanding in terms of bandwidth. This will also put pressure on the communication infrastructure going forward. Here, again, our constant management – and investment in our core network and in future technology projects – are key for the industry.