As international air travel has blossomed, the skies have become increasingly crowded. To cope with the explosion in air traffic seen in the latter half of the 20th century, European air traffic authorities have developed their own systems, which have led to a situation whereby air traffic management (ATM) across the continent differs significantly from country to country. With air traffic continuing to rise in the 21st century, our ability to use disparate systems alongside one another is becoming strained, and a new industry standard is being sought.
Rather than continue with incompatible, country-specific systems, open-source ATM is being hailed as a cost-effective solution to harmonise the management of our skies. This is the goal of the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) programme, which plans to achieve a single European airspace in which ATM systems throughout the continent are interoperable.
Jean-Marc Duflot, surveillance products and services manager at EUROCONTROL, argues that the foundation layers of ATM – communication, navigation and surveillance – can be effectively harmonised using open-source solutions.
"In the study work we have performed so far, the point was to consider the open-source model as a vector for harmonisation, through the deployment of common components, thus contributing to overall system defragmentation," he explains.
The advantages of open source are easy to see, and remove barriers that would otherwise halt the progress of harmonisation. "Benefits such as evolution through collaborative innovation and potential economies of scale would of course also be of interest for the community," says Duflot. By providing lower entry costs, collaborative improvement and removing vendor lock-in, open source has the potential to meet the needs of the ATM community when compared with its closed-source rivals. Better quality, reliability and interoperability make for a convincing case.
One of the most vocal proponents of this means of ATM is Albatross, the ATM Open Source Community. Bringing together a range of industry experts, including service providers, regulatory bodies and research institutions, the aim of the project is to offer a platform for open-source ATM systems to flourish in the marketplace. Success can already be seen in the shape of Linux, a well-known open-source operating system, which is now used in lower systems layers of the SESAR programme.
However, open source may not be appropriate for all levels of SESAR, as specific applications with limited commercial appeal are simply not appropriate for development using the open-source model.
"In our study, we noted that open source would be principally applicable to components having reached a good level of maturity, therefore 'commoditisable'," explains Duflot. "Whereas the development from scratch of higher application layers in SESAR following an open-source approach is unlikely, considering required investments for niche market situations."
Despite it not being a one-size-fits-all solution, open source certainly has the potential to transform the development of interoperable ATM systems in the future, something that Europe is craving for its increasingly congested skies.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and are not necessarily endorsed by EUROCONTROL or its senior management.