Adapting to New Entrants into the Airspace: A Glimpse at the 2018 ATCA Annual Conference and Exposition

ATCA Annual

Later this month, more than 3,000 air traffic management (ATM) experts will descend upon the Gaylord National Convention Center in National Harbor, MD to discuss the current state and future developments of the ATC industry at the 2018 ATCA Annual Conference and Exposition. According to the Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA) site for the event, ATCA “takes an in-depth look at the future of air traffic management. As ATC/ATM industry thought leaders, ATCA continues to make its annual conference the premier forum for aviation professionals.”

Similar to last year’s show, new entrants like unmanned aerial systems (UASs) in the airspace remain a top concern for the ATC industry and will undoubtedly be a hot topic for discussion this year. To learn a bit more about what to expect at the 2018 ATCA Annual, we spoke with Peter F. Dumont, President and CEO of ATCA. We previously included Dumont in our monthly executive spotlight, where he shared some background information about his career path and experience in the aviation industry. Here’s what he had to say about how ATM is rapidly evolving and what will be featured at this year’s show:

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Connected Aviation Today (CAT) Editors: What are some of the key themes for this year’s ATCA Annual Conference and Exhibition? Which sessions are you most looking forward to?

ATCA Annual
Peter F. Dumont, President and CEO of ATCA

Peter Dumont (PD): We have three tracks this year: Innovation, Integration, and Policy. Each track offers a different perspective on the future of air traffic management (ATM). It’s difficult for me to pick a favorite panel. We strive to make them all relevant, informative, and thought leading. The first panel, Blue Skies: Beyond NextGen, sets the direction for the entire conference. I particularly enjoy fireside chats with the FAA leaders, but most of all, I enjoy the awards banquets ATCA holds to recognize excellence in our industry.

CAT Editors: What’s next on the horizon for the FAA NextGen modernization program?

PD: Many of our members – including me – believe that we are ready for the next conversation about air traffic control.  New entrants, including unmanned aerial systems (UASs) and commercial space, and the growing realization that autonomous passenger flights will populate our national airspace make it imperative that we start developing what our next air traffic modernization effort looks like.

In fact, maybe we should not even use the term “air traffic modernization effort” because we will undoubtedly modify the way we provide future air traffic services.  New entrants will use the airspace differently and therefore will need alternative services.

For instance, some UASs will fly in low altitude airspace and self-separate; some UASs will use very high altitudes; and some will not fly point-to-point but in a zigzag pattern for observation.  The size, altitudes, and flight patterns of UASs will alter the type of air traffic services they need.

Commercial space will need vertical shafts of space equivalent to their calculated flight path and their possible alternative path in the event of a catastrophic launch.  Autonomous air taxis in a future with urban flight mobility options will need even more specified air traffic services.  The future needs for air traffic services are varied and the requirements will continue to develop as the new entrant technology rapidly evolves.

We have all been saying things like “What is the next NextGen?” or “NextGen will never be completed because that is not how modernization works anymore.”  It is time to discuss the future of air traffic management in a new way, not just because we are moving beyond NextGen, but because we are also seeing new entrant demands on the system, and the private sector bringing a sense of urgency to support these new commercial opportunities.  The rules of air traffic management from “see and be seen,” to new technology, to how users pay for the air traffic system should be up for discussion.

CAT Editors: What are some of the biggest challenges you’re hearing from industry leaders?

PD: One of the biggest challenges is new entrants, specifically drones. I have repeatedly said and written that the integration of drones into the national airspace system (NAS) is the single most difficult effort we have ever seen. It is not just bigger and faster aircraft than we have seen in the past, it is integrating a vehicle without an on-board pilot into an airspace system that was designed for pilots on-board.

But there are many other challenges to both industry and government. More and more the solutions for one are the solutions for the other. We are seeing a trend toward more collaboration between government and industry to find solutions to the many challenges facing the aviation industry today.

CAT Editors: What are some of the most noticeable ways ATC has evolved over the last 5 years? Where do you see it headed in the next 5 years?

PD: Again, over the last five years the answer is new entrants. Over the next five years? I don’t answer those questions, mostly because I am never right. Who would have thought that drones would so challenge the way we provide ATM? But the next five years and beyond is exactly the conversation that we need to have. ATCA provides a platform to develop the structure for those discussions and to facilitate them.

We look forward to seeing what the 2018 ATCA Annual brings to light this year. You can follow updates from the show on Twitter via #ATCA.