Surfing the sky

Pilots will move from radio to internet-based data systems if a project aimed at ‘networking the sky’ is a success.

The EC-funded NEWSKY consortium, led by the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), is developing an integrated communication network that will allow pilots to communicate with the control tower via VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) and download essential data regarding weather or air traffic while simultaneously allowing passengers to surf the web and answer e-mails.

Regardless of whether a direct connection to a ground station is established or whether it is relayed via a satellite, the network independently selects the best data connection for any given situation.

Most safety-critical data is based on voice communications using Double-Sideband Amplitude Modulation (DSB-AM), which is more than 50 years old.

Eurocontrol (the European organisation for the safety of air navigation) believes that the continued use of these outdated systems will cause bottlenecks in air traffic management (ATM) within the next 10 to 15 years.

Speaking of the need for a new network, Dr Frank Schreckenbach, NEWSKY project manager at DLR, said: ‘At the moment we are experiencing a shift from voice communication to data communication and the network we are proposing will allow this trend to develop in the air.

‘For instance, if a pilot wants to know the weather forecast, instead of requesting the data via the radio, they will be able to download a weather map that can convey more information. This can be used both to improve air traffic safety and reduce environmental impact by optimising flight paths.’

Developing an integrated system presents many difficulties, particularly in terms of data security. Schreckenbach said: ‘This is one of our main challenges, but we have teams working on authentication and encryption technologies in order to maintain privacy and ensure that the data sent is coming from the right person.

‘We have designed the technologies and algorithms and are setting up a test-bed where we can demonstrate features within a network.’

The test-bed will validate the network using a topology simulator and an end-to-end ATM network simulator. The simulations will evaluate the network’s architecture by analysing data gathered from realistic air-traffic scenarios.

Subject to industry support, the consortium, which includes Thales and Qinetiq, aims to implement their network concept in the next eight years and fully integrate it with existing systems within the next 15 years.

Ellie Zolfagharifard