Right now, air traffic controllers are asking themselves the same question as everyone else: will my job ultimately be replaced by AI? As with other forward-thinking sectors, the ideal approach for everyone will be to combine the strength of both machines and human operators.
But how will AI come to shape the air traffic control industry? How can AI augment the capabilities of experienced ATC operators, leading to the safer, more efficient management of airports’ skies and runways?
Key areas of AI/human collaboration in ATC operations
Collision avoidance: The top priority of any ATC operator is to avoid collisions between planes in the air or on the ground. However, the process of assessing conditions and delivering instructions necessary to prevent such a disaster is entirely human-controlled, hence it is slow. Once they have learned sufficiently from historical and operational data, AI platforms can speed this up by predicting and determining safe routes and planned instructions faster than even the most accomplished ATC operator could manage. Human oversight will remain critical, however, as both final decisionmaker and failsafe mechanism.
Conditions updates: Even in routine, non-emergency operational circumstances, AI analysis will become increasingly useful. It can keep ATC human staff appraised of external factors, such as changing weather conditions and airspace interference from outside organisations, in almost real time. Giving human operators more operational visibility and the tools to enact decisions more quickly will be game-changing upgrades to their overall effectiveness.
Flight route planning: Alongside the quick reactions and decisions, the larger strategic picture of organising hundreds if not thousands of daily flight movements cannot be ignored. Human ATC operators are still responsible for the plotting and ordering of these routes – a task that is extremely time-consuming and often error-prone. AI will take the sting out of the complex strategic airspace planning piece, driving efficiency and reducing the instance rate of costly or even dangerous mistakes.
AI is coming to ATC, but we’ll have to be patient
The scale of resurgent airport operations in a Covid-recovering aviation industry means that flight movements are going to reach levels unmanageable by human operators if they remain unaided. The need for augmented ATC operations is clear and the risks are increasing with every added flight making the skies more crowded. Already, AI-based solutions from trusted providers like SAE exhibitor Air Traffic Solutions are impacting the market and driving safer and more sustainable airport operations.
However, the testing of AI cannot and should not be rushed. Comparisons can be drawn to the automotive industry, where self-driving cars and networked roads are still decades away from being commonplace due to the need for exhaustive testing. Leaving the fate of multiple flights to the decision-making capabilities of an AI platform – even with human oversight – will mean even more stringent testing and failsafe arrangements than anything travelling by road.