Airservices Australia accelerates improvement with digital twin

01 March 2020 6 min. read

Early last year, Airservices Australia selected consulting firm Deloitte, technology specialist McLaren and aviation specialist NATS to prepare the institution for the aviation industry’s next evolution. A range of digitisation and innovation programmes have since been initiated, including the roll-out of a digital twin.

As the continent’s provider of air navigation services, Airservices Australia expects the volume of conventional flights in its airspace to double over the next two decades. Meanwhile, the emergence of unmanned aerial vehicles in low altitude airspace – from aerial taxis to delivery drones – is accelerating the need for new intelligent systems, compounding an already difficult job. 

A digital twin for the better

Making better use of data through the use of a digital twin, combined with internet of things and machine learning techniques, is one of the avenues Airservices Australia is exploring for navigating these challenges.

A ‘digital twin’ is a business operation that is replicated and analysed in a digital environment, with improvements and solutions then simulated or implemented into the real world. The technique is derived from Formula 1 simulation technology, and is increasingly being introduced in the aviation industry, including air traffic management.

Airservices Australia accelerates improvement with digital twin

Mick Snell, service strategy manager at Airservices Australia, said: “The aviation industry is evolving quickly, and it’s vital that we evolve with it. We must move to take advantage of new technologies to make our services faster, more efficient and more valuable for our customers, airlines and other airspace users.

The Service Strategy team, led by Mick Snell, kicked off its digital twin development project in early 2019 with a practical objective: determine whether a digital twin can enhance Airservices’ ability to manage its current air traffic network. For example, could it be used to enhance flight routes, optimise takeoff times and reduce delays?

The team began by developing a digital twin of Airservices’ air traffic network using historic air traffic data. The team has completed four proofs of concept proving out the original objective and is looking forward to piloting them in parallel with existing air traffic control systems. The proofs of concept were able to optimise flight routes based on real-time conditions to provide better traffic flow management. 

While still in development, the digital twin project is also serving as a proving ground for enhancing Airservices’ traditional ways of working. The company’s heritage is built on safely delivering navigation services 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. With an unwavering focus on safe, efficient, and reliable service delivery, the increasing airspace complexity is driving Airservices to explore new solutions. 

Agile working

The digital twin project is helping change Airservices’ view of what’s possible. The team piloted an Agile development approach to improve time to market while preserving the focus on safety. The teams are delivering working software at a faster pace – iterating, testing, and learning in short sprints – and continuing to provide safe, accurate predictions. 

And while employees of Airservices have deep aeronautical expertise, the company also needed specialised technical knowledge to build and implement advanced analytic capabilities. The team filled that gap with vendors and consultants who offer highly relevant experience and off-the-shelf technology. 

“We selected Deloitte and McLaren as we are increasingly looking at opportunities to work with people from outside the aviation industry who can deliver benefits quickly.”
– Mick Snell, Service Strategy Manager at Airservices Australia

Meanwhile, the team continues to uncover relevant use cases for the digital twin. For example, air traffic controllers currently work in an assigned airspace regardless of traffic volume. To optimise the controllers’ workload, the team plans to use the digital twin to assign airspace to controllers based on predicted customer demand rather than fixed geographic locations.

Decision-making on the fly

Optimisation is an extraordinarily complex issue that requires volumes of real-time data to support what-if scenarios on the fly to help air traffic controllers to make faster, smarter decisions. The digital twin can also enable Airservices customers (pilots) to optimise flights based on what’s most important in the moment. For example, optimising airspace and routing helps increase on-time arrivals and saves fuel, but a pilot may decide to trade fuel for additional speed to avoid passengers missing their connections. 

Eventually, Airservices plans to use digital twins to develop and test strategies for dealing with disruptive innovations likely to affect its airspace. Strategists will be able to quickly test a wide range of scenarios for managing the multidimensional airspace of the future. 

With the proof-of-concept phase complete, the team is moving into preproduction. Members will be running trials with current data for several more months and then move into full-scale production, planned for this year. Snell reports, “We’ve been able to accelerate to an outcome far faster – we’ve come further in the last eight months than in the last eight years.” 

Commenting on the collaboration with Airservices Australia, Mike Phillips, commercial director at McLaren, said: “It is very promising to see another world-leading air services provider work with us to help improve operational efficiency at their business. Bridging the gap between the digital and physical worlds, we can deliver direct benefits to the provider’s customers by making better decisions, faster.”

Martin Bowman, a partner in the Aviation Technology practice of Deloitte added: “Data-led decision making can produce a variety of new operational benefits, for aviation staff and passengers.”