The aviation industry is facing unprecedented challenges as a result of the Coronavirus / COVID-19 pandemic. Whilst today the focus is rightly on responding to the immediate situation, there are good reasons to keep an eye on the future. When traffic does eventually return, ATM must be prepared for sustainable growth and sufficiently agile to copy with structural shocks such as those we are experiencing right now. ATM Data Service Providers (ADSP) can help the industry deliver on both points.
ATM Data Service Provider (ADSP) is a term we need to become familiar with. This new actor is intended to play a key role in the Future Airspace Architecture  foreseen by the SESAR JU study and Wise Person’s Group report, and has been researched through the SESAR2020 PJ16-03 Virtual Centre concept in which ADSPs are a cornerstone.
Illustration of the ADSP positioning linked to the Virtual Centre concept
What is an ADSP?
An ADSP is an entity that will manage all (or part of) the data processing and associated support services needed by one or several Air Traffic Service Units (ATSUs) to deliver ATS services. So for any given ATSU, flight data processing could be provided by one ADSP, whereas surveillance or meteorological data services could be provided by another - implying exchange of data between both ADSPs. In a different scenario, an ATSU could have a single ADSP providing all real-time ATM data needed to deliver ATS services.
An ADSP, as defined in the Virtual Centre concept, will also implement standardised interfaces to exchange data with ATSU(s) through the SWIM network, implying a level of SWIM compliance depending on the data services used.
However, one size will not fit all. ADSPs may look quite different for various data sets and in different contexts. From the current discussions, it is expected that an ADSP will be a company that could be geographically decoupled from its customer ATSUs. From the Airspace Architecture Study, it is also clear that ADSPs can be separate organisations from current air traffic service providers (who operate one or more ATSUs).
The ADSP concept is a stepping-stone towards realising the virtual de-fragmentation of European skies, and ultimately developing a more sustainable and competitive aviation industry.
Why more sustainable?
When ADSPs are geographically decoupled and use standardized services, it enables several beneficial strategies for contingency, even between European ATSUs. If one ATSU cannot provide ATS services anymore, another can step in using the ADSP data. Likewise, if an ADSP is unable to provide adequate performance on its services, another could be contracted to take on the work, with less barriers to change than today.
ADSPs could also enable infrastructure to be rationalised, contributing to economic sustainability. This rationalisation could save costs for air traffic service providers in terms of purchasing, maintenance and training of engineers on systems. Rationalisation also reduces redundancy and thus resilience, which is another facet of sustainability.
Why more competitive?
Just as with data providers in other markets today (for example, financial services), if an air traffic service provider is unhappy with one ADSP it can change its data provider and sign a contract with another ADSP promising improved performance or price. This assumes sufficient interoperability is in place.
An ADSP providing data to several ATSUs can increase cost efficiency in developing and commissioning new ATM functionalities for several ATSUs at the same time, independently from their locations. And this sharing of ADSPs by several ATSUs can also significantly enhance data coordination between ATSUs, and enable multiple ATSUs to be perceived as a single system from the airspace user’s perspective.
Last but not least, for air traffic service providers, it will also open new pathways towards:
So, what type of company could become an ADSP?
It may seem obvious that ATM supply industry would be the best placed to become ADSPs, as they bring technical understanding and IPR, moving from being a product provider to a service provider. However, in the early stages, it may be easier for air navigation service providers to become ADSPs, at least when it comes to regulation and certification, recognising that a decoupling of the existing vertically integrated model may present the least barriers and the most reassurance in terms of safety risk. In addition, the first ADSP certifications may imply management of currently unknown issues and represent risks and costs for industry that may act as a barrier.
Being an ADSP is not only about providing data processing and managing underlying systems. The ADSP will need to speak the operational language of ATSUs and understand the impact and criticality their system’s performance has on operations. They will also need to provide 24/7 support to ATSUs in case of real time incidents. Even though ATM industrials may have the knowledge and skills, in the extreme situation where there is only an operational room remaining in an ATSU, industrials will need some support from real operational staff, from an air navigation service provider or ATSU, to develop a credible ADSP proposition for Europe. On the other hand, ATSUs will also need to keep competences in the technicalities of their system performance, and to plan and manage updates of their operational systems.
Some air navigation service providers that own or have developed their systems could be interested in creating an internal ADSP service for their own ATSUs. Once done, why not offer this service to external stakeholders? It will probably be necessary to create a legal structure for this, with or without the involvement of an industrial player. For example, Maastricht UAC (Eurocontrol)providing services to Slovenia, or DSNA/ENAV to skyguide via Coflight Cloud Services.
Finally, major companies that specialise in cloud computing (Amazon, Google, Microsoft…) could also be interested in positioning themselves in this new ADSP market in ATM. There would be many more critical systems to handle compared to those they use today. Once again, partnerships with other stakeholders (ATM industrials, air navigation service providers…) might be an optimum solution.
Why should air navigation service providers take a look at the ADSP concept now?
The advent of ADSPs could completely change the airspace architecture and our way of thinking about ATM systems in the future, in terms of operations, responsibilities, costs and more. This will have a significant impact on air traffic service providers and require a strategy and priority rethink.
In Europe, we are still in the ADSP “discovery” phase. Except for the Network Manager data services, used daily by air traffic service providers, very few initiatives are publicly promoted, although several projects sound promising (Eurocontrol with ATM data as a service from MUAC, Coflight Cloud Services, skyguide’s internal Virtual Centre program). So, imagining the impact of all this on tomorrow’s operations can be difficult. However, ADSP offers so many possibilities of rethinking ways of working that it cannot be ignored in decision making concerning future operations or ATM system’s replacement for instance.
ADSPs’ arrival in the ATM market will raise many issues and will bring some risks; the most obvious examples being safety, network security and redundancy. Legal aspects and Service Level Agreements will have to be studied very carefully, addressing issues such as insurance cover, guarantee of services, sovereignty and so on. Air traffic service providers will also want to examine the organisational issues and required support from an ADSP that provides services for several ATSUs from different countries, while using the same data services and potentially based on a single technical platform.
Another focal point will be the need for the European Commission and EASA to work on the regulatory aspects, prior to commissioning these systems to manage real-time traffic, as they have already started to do in relation to ADSP certification.
Faced with the fallout of Coronavirus / COVID-19 and the steep reduction in revenue, ANSPs are forced to cut costs, postponing major system upgrades and reducing staff counts. However, we know from past experience that, if cashflow can be managed in the medium term, this could instead be a window of opportunity to redirect resources to preparing for a more sustainable and flexible future. Some air traffic service providers may be interested to use ADSP services in one or more ATSUs. Others may be interested in becoming part of an ADSP initiative (internal and/or external) as a provider. And there will be those who simply choose neither to use nor to provide external ADSP services.
Nevertheless, every air navigation service provider must explore this concept and what it can offer, before making a choice. First steps could include following the existing projects to see how they develop, meeting with first movers to learn more about it or having a look at the work being done in SESAR Wave 2 projects on Virtual Centres and ADSP. The European Commission has also launched a study examining the economic, legal and regulatory impacts to which Egis, part of the Egis Aviation Business Unit, is a key contributor. For those interested in becoming ADSPs, some analysis of their ability to create a commercial strand of their business could be an important part of the considerations.
Demonstrations done by SESAR2020 PJ16 in October 2019 have clearly established a technical feasibility for the Virtual Centre concept, and also for the ADSP concept. Even if there are still many bridges to cross, the SJU has stated an objective to have a first certified ADSP in 2025. At that point, we will most likely be far from a competitive market in ADSP, which will be the key for the future of this concept. However, on an ATM system lifespan scale, it will arrive quickly, and it must be taken into account in decision making on ATM system and architecture, to avoid potentially expensive and unfortunate choices.
Along the same lines, other stakeholders too must have a look at this ADSP concept in order to identify potential benefits, what it could change on the market and what are the opportunities for them to adapt if they want to do so. Going from a product provision strategy to a service provision strategy is an important change at all levels that will need time to become fully operational.
Carole Dupré is an ATM Expert and Project Manager with more than 10 years’ experience in the ATM field. With Egis since 2011, she has strong knowledge in ATC operational and functional needs, ATM systems as well as in the HMI and research domains around future ATM concepts. In recent years she has focussed on projects linked to Virtual Centres and ADSP concepts as well as Remote Tower activities. Previously, she was User eXperience Designer and Project Manager producing HMIs on multi-touch devices across several domains including aeronautics, retail, trading and natural resources management.