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Pilots and air traffic controllers can swap roles with new technology

New technology for air traffic control blurs the borderlines between what has traditionally been the respective jobs of pilots and air traffic controllers. The new technology is necessary for dealing with the growing air traffic but also raises issues about who is responsible for what, for instance. Fredrik Barchéus at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm, Sweden, has studied the consequences for the professional groups concerned.

New technologies such as satellite navigation, data link communication, and ADS-B (aircraft send out information about their position) have the potential to totally reform the routines involved in aviation by making it possible for one and the same system to run both navigation and monitoring. These tasks have traditionally been divided between pilots and air traffic controllers.

Air Traffic Management is the aggregate concept, and the technology has already been tested in planes in collaboration with airline companies in northern Europe.

“The present division of job tasks between the pilot and the air traffic controller is mainly based on the historical development and application of technological equipment­above all radar technology.

The new technology allows information in the aviation system to be split up to a much greater extent. For example, air traffic controllers can gain greater insight into navigation in certain phases, while pilots can be responsible for staying out of the way of other aircraft,” says Fredrik Barchéus, who is finishing his doctorate at the Section for Industrial Work Science at KTH in Stockholm, Sweden.

His section describes the basic properties of present-day and new technologies, procedures in civil aviation, and how tasks and responsibilities are distributed between pilots and air traffic controllers. Interviews with air traffic controllers from several European countries have shown that there is some concern about the future in terms of where the responsibility will lie in various situations, and how it can be transferred in a safe manner.

“New technology forces us to develop appropriate procedures to allow us to continue to fly safely. One key aspect is how the exchange of information should take place between air traffic controllers and pilots. Both data link and radio are possible modes, or even a combination of both,” says Fredrik Barchéus.

Observations from simulations in which the new technology was tested by pilots and air traffic controllers show both pros and cons for both communication modes. Transferring numbers via data link reduces the risk of misunderstanding in one way, while radio communication allows the air traffic controller to tell from the pilot’s tone of voice whether he understood an instruction. If not, the instruction can be repeated in a different way.

The technology already exists and can be implemented as soon as airlines and civil aviation authorities are ready to make the change. The obstacle at present is that airlines are busy coping with the stiff competition in the air travel market and have no economic incentive to invest in the technology. But down the road the authorities are going to want to replace various national systems with a common European set-up under the motto “A Single European Sky.”

“Regardless of when a change is effected, it’s important for future technological development to be carried out in international collaboration and for developers to place great emphasis on human factors such as procedures, phraseology, and training of pilots and air traffic controllers when the technology is introduced,” stresses Fredrik Barchéus.

Title of dissertation: Who is responsible? Communication, coordination and collaboration in the future Air Traffic Management system

Magnus Myrén | alfa
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