Exploring AI's role in Air Traffic Control: How contrail mitigation through technology can reduce aviation's climate impact. A sustainable ATC future.

Air Traffic Control (ATC) is central to ensuring planes fly safely in our skies. As technology progresses, ATC has opportunities to increase efficiency, safety, and importantly, sustainability. One such intersection between technology and ATC is seen in the use of AI to address the climate impact of contrails.

Contrails, the thin, white lines sometimes visible behind airplanes, have a significant impact on our climate. The 2022 IPCC report highlighted that clouds formed by contrails account for about 35% of aviation's global warming contribution, surpassing the impact of jet fuel.

In a recent initiative, Google Research collaborated with American Airlines and Breakthrough Energy. Their combined effort utilized vast data sets from satellite imagery, weather, and flight paths. By applying AI, they developed contrail forecast maps with the goal to determine if pilots, guided by ATC, could opt for flight routes that prevent the creation of contrails.

Contrails form when planes pass through humid layers, and under certain atmospheric conditions, they can linger as cirrus clouds. While these clouds might reflect sunlight back into space during the day, they're also capable of trapping considerable amounts of heat, leading to a net warming effect.

54% Reduction of Contrails

The undertaking with American Airlines involved pilots conducting 70 test flights over a six-month period. These pilots used Google's AI predictions alongside Breakthrough Energy’s contrail models to avoid potential contrail-producing altitudes. Post-flight analyses showed encouraging results: contrail production was reduced by 54%. This indicates that with careful planning, commercial flights can minimize contrail formation and its associated climatic effects.


However, there are challenges. Flights that aimed to prevent contrail formation consumed 2% more fuel. But given that only a small fraction of flights may require adjustments to reduce contrail-induced warming, the total fuel increase for an entire airline's operations could be as low as 0.3%. This data suggests that contrail avoidance, using current predictions, could be achieved on a larger scale at costs of $5-25/ton CO2e.

For ATC professionals and stakeholders, these findings are significant. The evolving landscape of ATC, supported by AI, offers not just enhanced aviation safety and efficiency but also an opportunity to reduce the industry's environmental impact.

This project underscores the potential of merging AI, ATC, and aviation practices. As the industry moves forward, ongoing research aims to automate contrail avoidance, focus on high-impact contrails, and refine satellite-based validation. With a collaborative effort across the aviation sector, the utilization of AI to streamline contrail avoidance becomes an achievable future goal.

We Need an Internet of ATC-Services

In the conception of interoperability and Ground-to-Air and Ground-to-Ground communication and automation, we should not be afraid to think big.

Simply connecting classical ATC solutions and replacing Pilot-ATCO communication through automated services is not enough.

When we dare to take on board external services but non-traditional providers to the ATC-world, we can trigger emergent processes, which will foster innovation, efficiency gains, and reduced environmental effects.

The contrail use case just showed it. Just by optimizing flight routes on contrail reduction, we can eliminate almost 20% of aviation‘s global warming impact. Taking the factors into the trajectory optimization like wind, or reduced waiting time before landing clearance, the impact can be significant.

Yes, we will need to set the security standards right, just like we currently do in connected automobility or as we did in banking. But we can do, and harness AI-driven improvements.

And yes - again the ATSEP profile will evolve, to the guardian of safety and the sheriff of cyber resilience. Enhanced system monitoring and control concepts need to be imagined. Let‘s go for it.

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