Mildred Troegeler is Director of Global Airspace Integration, Boeing NeXt

What is the potential for bringing the worlds of aviation and telecommunications together?

Telecommunications networks already provide vital infrastructure support to airspace operations today, from the provision of air traffic services to airport and airline operations and management. They will play an even more important role in the future. Reliable, timely and secure communications are absolutely essential to future airspace and ATM concepts such as UAS traffic management (UTM) that the aviation community is defining today. But without the engagement of the telecommunications industry this is a path of risk and potentially-missed opportunities. There is too much to be gained from leveraging the substantial expertise, planning and advancements being made by our respective industries.

What kind of operations might become available with the advent of 5G and more closely aligned telecommunications and aviation sectors?

In our view, safe and reliable mobility transformation does not occur just through developing safe and reliable platforms. Ultimately, the main focus is on building a safe and efficient eco-system where these platforms can operate. Developing automated systems to safely manage airspace is key. We have invested in, and are working closely with, many start-up companies, including SparkCognition with whom we have launched a joint venture called SkyGrid, to enable the safe and autonomous management of airspace though the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain technology. SkyGrid will leverage AI technologies along with other environmental inputs to deliver safe corridors and routes to unmanned airspace users. With SkyGrid we are advancing the capabilities of airspace and ATM solutions for early transformational air mobility use-cases such as the operation of UAS at low altitude. This would require a high level of connectivity.

Boeing is focused on the design, development and delivery of safety critical components of the aviation eco system so voice and data communications are critical to just about every aspect of aviation.

When it comes to the critical capabilities required of telecommunications the focus is on security, reliability, capacity, coverage and availability. As we look forward to a future of mixed piloted and unpiloted operations the ability to share data in real time across different systems will be key to having a safe aviation eco system. People will need to talk to machines, machines to people, machines to machines and people to people.

Where does 5G fit in this?

Whether it be 4G, 5G or evolutions beyond – commercial telecommunications networks will play a valuable role in enabling the future aviation environment and systems required to support. With respect to 5G – its higher bandwidth, reduced latency, ability support greater numbers of connected users, and its ability to provide prioritised connections are some of its capabilities that could be leveraged within future airspace management concepts, such as UTM.

It’s not so much a question of 4G or 5G but more a question of finding the right level of connectivity to guarantee the highest level of safety and efficiency while making sure we do the right groundwork to put this into place.

Do you have any timescale for this?

As a community we are in the exploration and demonstration phase, so we expect in the next five to ten years many of the programmes we are working on today will have matured, along with the global consolidation of concepts with a growing number of UTM or U-space services of increasing capabilities. We will have shifted from “definition” phase to have begun the evolution towards a full capability of digital, connected and automated airspace environment.

So the worlds of aviation and telecoms will have to come together – what would you like to see emerge from the next Connected Skies event?

Through the Global UTM Association (GUTMA) and the Connected Skies forum we have the opportunity to develop a shared understanding of both the end-users’ needs and infrastructure capabilities to support them. We can identify gaps and differences and develop a joint path forward. There is power to having a consistent and unified voice, particularly in discussions involving spectrum.

I would like to see the discussions we are having today increasingly reflected in substantive plans for action and a joint plan developed outlining mutually beneficial activities in key areas such as spectrum, encryption, performance standards and regulations. I think it would be very helpful to have a round table discussion about the development of an aviation telecommunications industry position on the regulatory treatment of cellular networks in providing safety related data to unmanned aircraft. If we don’t get agreement on this then the timeline will shift significantly to the right, as the aerospace industry might oppose telecommunication industries usurping this spectrum.

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