Preparing for new airspace users

Richard Ellis from NATS gave the audience a glimpse of the future with his presentation on new airspace users at the Future Skies Theatre.

3d illustration of transportation drone flying

Ellis explained that the skies of 2034 will be very different from those of today. The speed of development is difficult to ascertain but there is little doubt that disruptive technologies and new airspace entrants will transform the industry.

He highlighted a number of areas that have already begun changing or are at least in the planning stage:

  • There will be a modal shift in transportation. Although human pilots may initially be involved in some advanced air mobility (AAM) flights, eventually uncrewed operations at scale will be routine.
  • Airspace will be integrated from space to ground. Ellis emphasised that it cannot only be about what is happening below 500ft but rather must involve a more holistic approach.
  • Regulators must embark on the same journey as the industry and enable different flight regulations, including digital instrument Flight Rules (IFR). Ellis suggested that AAM will use visual flight rules (VFR), then move to IFR before digital IFR becomes commonplace.
  • Infrastructure will become increasingly complex and abundant with vertiports springing up across cities. The number and location of vertiports will be an important factor in the concept of operations (CONOPS) as most new airspace users will rely on battery power and so managing their flight times and capabilities will be critical to safety.
  • Air navigation service providers (ANSPs) will need to accelerate and complete their digitalisation work to integrate all airspace users safely and seamlessly.

Ellis said there are several difficult challenges and questions ahead, such as determining the capacity needed since many areas will potentially go from hundreds of flights a day to tens of thousands.

He called for ANSPs to de-risk as much as possible. Possible risk mitigation strategies include validating the CONOPS and business cases at the earliest opportunity, providing regulators with the requisite data to help them make informed separation standard rules, and generating visualisations of future airspace.