March 4, 2021 | Automated flight guidance

Customising individual flight routes for more climate-friendly outcomes

  • DLR project DIAL contributes towards reaching global climate targets in air transport.
  • More automation in air traffic management ensures greater flexibility in traffic routing and increases airspace capacity.
  • The DIAL project integrates new meteorological processes for reducing severe weather risks.
  • Flight routes are individually optimised according to climate-friendly criteria and assessed by looking at overall traffic scenarios.
  • Focus: Aeronautics

Customised flight routes can help to limit the rise in global temperatures caused by human activities. If this goal is to be achieved, air traffic management must be automated to a far greater extent than it is today. The 'Individual and automated air traffic' (Der individuelle und automatisierte Luftverkehr; DIAL) project recently launched by the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) will combine research work over the next four years with the aim of advancing flight guidance automation. This will enable flight planners to offer customised, climate-optimised routes for every aircraft in the sky, avoiding areas in the atmosphere where long-lasting condensation trails might form, for example. Non-carbon-dioxide-effects such as contrail cirrus contribute approximately two thirds of the climate impact of air transport.

"Through projects like DIAL, we are making a sustainable contribution towards reaching our climate goals for air transport," says Anke Kaysser-Pyzalla, Chair of the DLR Executive Board. "Ultimately, our findings from the DIAL project should be interlinked in such a way that we can use the airspace capacity gained through automation to provide each aircraft with an optimised, low-climate-impact flight route, all just as safely and reliably as before."

Customised and automated air transport

Today's airspace structures and Air Traffic Management (ATM) systems are primarily optimised for safety and capacity. With the right automation, this can be expanded to include climate-friendly targets such as minimising carbon dioxide emissions and reducing condensation trail formation. As part of the DIAL project, DLR researchers are developing processes that optimise various climate-related parameters, while facilitating greater capacity for ATM systems. The existing safety level is always the benchmark. At the same time, the plan is to make ATM systems more productive by increasing the level of automation. This will make traffic routing in the sky even more flexible and robust when demand rises again. With these goals in mind, seven DLR institutes have joined together under the leadership of the DLR Institute of Flight Guidance.

Automation for fewer constraints on routing

Individually climate-optimised flight trajectories require free capacity in airspace. Such free capacity would seem to be a possibility if today's highly complex air transport sector was to become more automated. "Innovative ATM concepts such as single controller operations are bound to play an important role here. This concept reduces the workload, allowing a single controller to oversee a sector," says Project Manager Maik Friedrich of the DLR Institute of Flight Guidance. DIAL will also focus on the concept of sector-free flight guidance, whereby airspace is not divided into sectors. Such approaches to reconfiguring air traffic management have been the subject of DLR research for many years and are now being further developed with a view to greater automation.

Meteorological expert systems for flight planning

In the DIAL project, researchers will also be developing new meteorological processes in expert systems that will be incorporated into flight planning in both the short and long term, thus helping to ensure safety and climate protection. "These processes address weather risks such as thunderstorms or icing, as well as extreme events such as volcanic ash, desert dust and space weather," says Thomas Gerz of the DLR Institute of Atmospheric Physics. "In particular, they take into account climate and environmental protection." Forecasting the weather one to five days ahead will improve advance flight planning. Short-term forecasting will also be incorporated into the final flight preparations. The flights themselves will be aided by weather observations and short-term forecasts. Weather information will be integrated into the route planning, allowing planners to identify problems and make the necessary route adjustments. This mill make it possible for individual routes to be customised and adjusted according to the weather.

Evaluation cycles for the simulation of future developments

"It is important to be able to predict exactly what effect altered flight routes will have on capacity, safety and climate impact," says Dirk Kügler, Director of the DLR Institute of Flight Guidance. This will be achieved within DIAL through a detailed simulation of future air transport developments. Evaluation cycles make it possible to simulate current air transport targets and their effects in terms of as many influencing parameters as possible, whereupon they can be evaluated. These influencing parameters might include the rollout of new types of aircraft or the use of new meteorological data. Researchers are planning to execute an evaluation cycle as part of the project and test it using various air traffic scenarios. The aim is to achieve more realistic predictions by performing a large number of repeated simulations.

Interdisciplinary combination of DLR expertise

A total of nine different simulations are planned over the course of the DIAL project. The single controller operation and sector-free flight guidance concepts will be validated in real-time simulations involving human participants. At the same time, automatic simulations of the evaluation cycles will be carried out in parallel by all of the institutes involved.

As part of the project, the DLR institutes of Flight Guidance, Communications and Navigation, Aerospace Medicine, Atmospheric Physics, Combustion Technology, Air Transport and Airport Research, and Air Transportation Systems are conducting research into customisable, automated air traffic. The project is being funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Energie; BMWi). Results are expected when the project comes to an end in 2024.

DLR – research for climate-neutral air transport

The consequences of climate change demand action for climate-neutral air transport. This involves new technologies that will also ensure global mobility in the future. With its 25 institutes and facilities in the field of aeronautics research, DLR is driving this change forward with technologies for sustainable, environmentally compatible flight. Expertise from DLR's research programmes in space, energy and transport will also play an important role in this.

DLR has systems expertise in aeronautics research and sees itself in the role of an architect. DLR’s goal is 'emission-free air transport', in order to achieve the climate targets that have been set. In doing so, the results of research must flow directly into the development of new products.

There is a considerable need for research and development on the path to climate-compatible air transport, which requires continuous funding and support. Much of this needs to be researched at a fundamental level, tested in practice and approved. DLR can do this with large-scale facilities such as its research aircraft, propulsion demonstrators and large-scale computers. In 2020, DLR published the white paper 'Zero Emission Aviation' together with the German Aerospace Industries Association (Bundesverband der Deutschen Luft- und Raumfahrtindustrie; BDLI). DLR is currently working on a Zero Emission strategy.

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Falk Dambowsky

Head of Media Relations, Editor
German Aerospace Center (DLR)
Corporate Communications
Linder Höhe, 51147 Cologne
Tel: +49 2203 601-3959

Maik Friedrich

German Aerospace Center (DLR)
Institute of Flight Guidance
Human Factors
Lilienthalplatz 7, 38108 Braunschweig

Thomas Gerz

Head of department
German Aerospace Center (DLR)
Institute of Atmospheric Physics
Transport Meteorology
Münchener Straße 20, 82234 Oberpfaffenhofen