Figure 1. Example of an IKONOS image of a commercial airport — Brussels

Enhancing Commercial Air Transportation

Dejan Damjanovic
Domain Manager Air & Marine Transportation
Space Imaging
Thornton, Colo.

The commercial airlines of the world increasingly have been required to perform a daunting task — reduce the costs of airline service by whatever means possible, yet increase the number of destinations that they can service, in order to grow their revenue streams and operate as fiscally viable companies. As the first-world countries and their air services become saturated, the sole remaining opportunities for growth exist in servicing the second- and third-world countries that lack extensive air transportation networks.

As the number of destinations increases, so does the need for training all pilots to fly to more destinations, which then places upward pressure on training costs. However, the challenges of the post-9/11 world have forced the world’s airlines to be very aggressive about cost containment or cost cutting. This dual problem is driven in part by the ups and downs of international fuel prices and by wide fluctuations in demand for commercial air travel due to events such as 9/11 and the SARS epidemic in China.

Remote Sensing has the capabilities to address many of the challenges described above by taking advantage of the unique abilities of high-resolution satellites. The challenges involved in moving to new routes in second- and third-world countries are not dissimilar to those that occur in the military when mission planning to new destinations is done for humanitarian or military missions. This planning typically involves the use of satellite information to plan better the routes to those destinations. Stereo Photogrammetry from in-track stereo imagery is used to collect 3-D models of the departure and arrival routes in and out of the new destinations.

The second step that occurs in the military is the use of mission rehearsal to train pilots actually to fly in and out of those new destinations. This may be done on complete full-motion flight simulators, on desktop procedures trainers, or on laptops or workstations with a monitor and joystick. Again, high-resolution imagery can be used to build complete visual simulation databases in order to train pilots in what is known as “photo-real” visual databases – where the view in the simulator is exactly the same as the view out the window in the real aircraft.

Constructing moving map display systems is the third step, so that, when the pilots fly to and from the airports, they can use precise vector or raster moving map display systems to monitor their progress and can plan for alternate routes in case of adverse weather or maintenance challenges. These moving map systems are also derived from high-resolution satellite imagery, superimposed onto the GPS position of the aircraft in the air or on the ground. This third step is mission execution.

While all of the above is fine for military air forces with large discretionary budgets, this procedure has not been feasible for the world’s airlines, due to the cost of satellite imagery required for each destination – it is not uncommon for an airline to serve upwards of 50-100 individual destinations. A better model had to be found.

Enter the International Air Transport Association or IATA. IATA represents some 95% of the world’s commercial airlines. At the end of the Second World War, the creators of the United Nations formed an organization known as the International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO, to regulate commercial air transportation worldwide. ICAO’s mandate was to help all the UN countries to open the airspace of countries wanting to travel in the new world finally free of the shackles of World War II. ICAO was headquartered in Montreal, Canada, and provided the necessary regulatory framework for all national Civil Aviation Administrations, or CAA’s, to control commercial air transportation. Examples of such national organizations are the FAA in the US, NavCanada in Canada, and Airservices Australia in Australia.

In order for the commercial airlines to have an appropriate voice in the conduct of that air transportation, IATA was created in 1945 with 57 members from 31 founding nations. Today, IATA has over 270 members from 140 countries around the world. Its primary activities are to promote inter-airline cooperation on routes and to provide common “best practices” for airlines and commercial airports to ensure safe and efficient operations. IATA also published a significant amount of tabular data on obstacles in the vicinity of airports, but without any independent satellite imagery to validate those obstacle locations.

In early 2002, IATA recognized that its member airlines could also benefit from the use of remote sensing to expand route structures, to find more economical route structures, and to enhance the quality and fidelity of flight training by the use of high-resolution satellite imagery. Mutual colleagues at IATA and Space Imaging brainstormed the notion of a partnership to introduce remote sensing to benefit all member airlines. For a satellite company individually to market remote sensing products and services to 270 airlines would not be cost-effective. However, if the customer point of contact were a single organization such as IATA, then the cost of providing those remote sensing products would be feasible.

Thus in July of 2004, both parties signed a partnership agreement that would enable Space Imaging and IATA to produce a new line of remote-sensing-derived products to solve many of the problems described above. These new products, marketed and sold under the IATA brand name, will increase air transport safety and efficiency for the world’s airlines and airports. Space Imaging will manufacture the products by utilizing the company’s multi-source satellite imagery, imagery-derived products, IATA’s proprietary geospatial information and other public domain sources.

Figure 2
The agreement allows for four categories of products to be sold under the IATA brand:

  1. Satellite imagery of airports that include visual representations of ground obstacles.
  2. Aeronautical terrain and obstacle databases, manufactured from IATA’s obstacle (see Figure 1). information and terrain data derived from Space Imaging’s IKONOS stereo imagery.
  3. Airport Mapping Databases (AMDB) that conform to the aviation industry’s international standard (DO-272/ED-99) (see Figure 2).
  4. Aviation visual simulation databases for desktop flight training devices (FTD) and full-motion simulators.

High-resolution satellite imagery and its derived products would assist in these efforts in the following ways.

  • Mission Planning: Planning for New Routes
    One of the most significant possible new markets for IATA to pursue is the provision of additional imagery, vector maps and operational information for all of the new remote airfields being used as alternates by airlines flying Extended Twin-engine Operations over water (ETOPS), or by airlines flying conventional 3-engine and 4-engine aircraft over the pole. Russia, China and other countries are now opening their airspace in order to collect more over-flight charges, but the level of data available for flight operations is still less than optimal. The use of the IKONOS® product line at those remote alternate airfields will greatly enhance the level of information available to existing Polar Routes, and new Polar Routes still being developed. In-track Stereo IKONOS is used to develop 3-D maps of the airports and to extract digital elevation models (DEM’s) for the surrounding areas of the airfields. The 3-D maps can be used to calculate the optimum climb and descent profiles in and out of those airfields.
  • Mission Rehearsal: Training for New Routes
    Once new route information has been developed, the same high-resolution satellite imagery can be put into flight simulators to train the pilots in actually flying to and from those destinations. Figure 3 shows what such a 3D visualization would look like – truly photo-real!
  • Mission Execution: Flying the New Routes
    Six current trends in global air transportation’s future are:
    1. Migration to GPS navigation, away from ground-based navigation aids.
    2. Required Navigation Performance (RNP) Flight Operations.
    3. Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum (RVSM) Flight Operations.
    4. Increased data-linked air traffic control instead of voice air traffic control.
    5. Runway incursion prevention technologies.
    6. More rigorous computation of Engine-Out Procedures.
Figure 3

All of these will demand significant redesign of existing navaid-based terminal procedures and company routings, as well as major urban area terminal redesigns to accommodate local changes and noise abatement requirements (especially in EC countries!). Most countries of the world will be looking at better data to accomplish this, and so will many of IATA’s members who fly into those countries.

Information within the realm of global Civil Aviation Authorities in second- and third-world countries at present is described as “best available” due to lack of funding availability. At present there is not enough quality information concerning operational content relating to airports and their surroundings. Operators and service providers are using whatever they can find, information which may be completely out-of-date or unapproved by the necessary authorities. If performance, obstacle, or flight path data are non-existent in relation to needed analysis, operators are forced to develop their own contingency data in order to provide safe obstacle clearance during engine-out, missed approach or engine failure during a missed landing.

Figure 4. Advances on automatic runway markings vector creation
Figure 5. Newest work on automatic closed runway detection and annotation

Any discussion of new sources of geospatial information for aviation must include a complete life-cycle to monitor changes at all affected airports. Space Imaging has developed some powerful proprietary tools that allow them to re-acquire new imagery, re-extract new vectors, and compare those to the old vectors previously constructed in earlier versions of a particular airport. This will allow the SI/IATA arrangement to include a complete subscription-type arrangement, to ensure that changes acquired over time would be passed from SI to IATA, and then by IATA to their members via their existing communication channels.

As shown in Figures 3, 4, and 5, the types of airport change that would be acquired automatically could include runway and taxiway closures and obstructions, changes in runway threshold and taxiway segments, as well as ramp and apron changes.

Benefits for airport authorities include those within planning for changes to their facilities, emergency procedures and noise abatement; within operations, such as tracking of ground vehicles with airport moving maps systems; and within training, such as for new procedures with simulators.

In the years to come, the commercial airlines of the world will have a reliable source of remote sensing information for all of their advanced mapping needs. As they move the frontiers of new destinations farther and farther out, high-resolution satellite imagery, airport mapping databases, and terrain and obstacle information will be available to enhance the safety of operations to those new locations.

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