Flying needs to become more sustainable, quieter and more efficient. For this you need to think far beyond the aircraft itself: airports for example, can contribute as well. In the newly launched Airport Technology Lab, TU Delft researchers are testing their ideas, from better weather forecasting models to faster baggage handling. All of these ideas contribute to improved efficiency in aviation, and a more sustainable industry.
Already before the current coronavirus crisis, the aviation industry was facing huge challenges in areas such as sustainability, capacity and noise nuisance. The goal of the Airport Technology Lab (ATL) is to contribute to solving these problems. Since recently, it offers a special environment at Rotterdam The Hague Airport, where new services and products can be developed and tested under realistic and “live” conditions. Knowledge institutions as TU Delft, government bodies such as the City of Rotterdam, and the business community such as the airport and its innovation foundation RHIA, are collaborating closely.
Fieldlab for aviation innovation
“In other words, ATL is a fieldlab for innovations in aviation, where smart technologies are conceived, developed, tested and put into production", says project manager Elise Bavelaar from TU Delft. “We actually embarked on this course back in 2016 with the Innovation Airport initiative launched by Deltas, Infrastructures & Mobility Initiative (DIMI) and the faculty of Aerospace Engineering. This originated from the need to align all airport-related expertise at TU Delft and to link it together smartly. Of course the ultimate goal is to share this knowledge with parties beyond the university. An important part of Innovation Airport is our ambition to create a Fieldlab and the collaboration with the innovation foundation Rotterdam The Hague Innovation Airport.”
The sector remains strongly convinced of the need for innovation, to be honest, I think even more than before the corona crisis.
Airport Technology Lab is meeting this ambition and is thus an important follow-up from the Innovation Airport initiative. “All in all it has been a long journey to get the ATL to take off. It has taken us more than 18 months”, says Bavelaar, who has been involved with Innovation Airport from the start. “An important part of the process was our successful application for ERDF (European Regional Development Fund) funding. It was a huge and complex puzzle to coordinate everything and everyone, with on the one hand the many parties and areas of expertise (within TU Delft alone three faculties are involved, AE, EEMCS and IDE, plus the Innovation & Impact Centre), and on the other hand the different aspects that need to be addressed, ranging from financial affairs to legal issues. A key question was for example whether there was any unlawful state aid for the project.”
This made the ATL a very special environment for Bavelaar, who has a background in technology. She graduated five years ago from the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering at TU Delft. “Yes, it's a completely different job I have now, but I see that it is a considerable advantage to be well up-to-date on advancements in technology and engineering.”
“It is precisely the combination of technology with other aspects that appeals to me. I experienced this in Germany during an internship for my Master's degree. I was working for Air Berlin and focused on improving airport processes. During that internship I discovered I like being involved with more than just the technology.”
“My personal passion is to translate academic knowledge into practice. It is important that scientific insights can have a quicker impact on the real world.”
Back to ATL, which was officially opened at the end of May 2020. What makes this specific project unique? “For the most part this is because of the access to relevant airport data that we can use to test and develop new innovations. Of course appropriate measures related to privacy issues have been taken.” Meanwhile, the first tangible research projects have kicked off. “We have started working on three topics”, explains Bavelaar. “They all involve technology to make ground and air activities at airports more efficient and more sustainable in the near future. The first project is on expanding and refining the radar system at the airport. An extremely accurate model for current weather forecasting is being developed which will give Air Traffic Control increased insight into the current weather situation. This model can be used to predict possible turbulence between aircraft under changing weather conditions and this will ultimately lead to more efficient take-off and landing procedures. This part of the ATL project primarily involves the faculty of EEMCS.”
In the second project, researchers are developing a new tool that can predict airside disruptions using machine learning techniques. This information can be used by planners at the airport to help them make tactical and operational decisions which will also lead to more efficient procedures. As part of the first project, the ‘flight-to-gate planning’ module is being tested.
And finally, a tool is being developed which can simulate the efficiency, safety and resilience of processes in the airport terminal. Among other things, this tool enables development of applications for a call-to-gate strategy and passenger flow optimisation. In addition, this tool could be used to assess how the baggage drop-off points impact the flow of passengers in the terminal.
According to Bavelaar: “The researchers’ initial experiences are positive. The airport has proven to be a pleasant working environment, with good accessibility and opportunities to test innovations. Moreover, the airport staff and the other stakeholders are more than happy to work with us.”
The coronavirus situation demanded a great deal from the students’ capacity for improvisation. Nonetheless, in virtually no time at all they made the necessary practical adjustments, as did the other researchers in the project. This is really something to be proud of.
“So we're making good progress”, concludes Bavelaar. “An important factor is that we continue to reinforce the vision of DIMI within the project and in particular the emphasis on a multidisciplinary and holistic research approach. Of course there is the link with teaching at TU Delft. For example several student groups of the Interactive Technology Design course, at the faculty of Industrial Design Engineering, have already worked on airport assignments.”
“The coronavirus demanded a great deal from the students’ capacity for improvisation. However, in no time at all they made the necessary practical adjustments, as did the other researchers in the project. This is really something to be proud of.”
Bavelaar is aware that the current times have huge consequences for the aviation sector as a whole. “Yet the impact on the ATL project seems less bad than we feared, and if anything the coronavirus crisis has reinforced the need for innovation.”