SESAR Digital Academy to nurture Europe’s brightest minds. Aimee Turner talked with ATM Chief David Bowen.

How can training professionals inspire the next-generation aviation workforce in anticipation of the digital economy? More important, how can they nurture that talent to ensure greater mobility and connectivity of air travel?

Europe’s public-private R&D partnership – the SESAR Joint Undertaking – the technological pillar of the Single European Sky, is charged with improving air traffic management performance by modernising and harmonising ATM systems throughout the European Union.

As part of its exploratory research activities it is also attempting to develop the skills of the future ATM workforce and, to date, its work has focussed on providing opportunities for students to participate in and contribute to European research, including support for PhD research projects.

But those at its helm knew something more was needed if SESAR Is to fulfil its appointed role of stimulating, funding and coordinating all research related to ATM across Europe.

The developing solution is the SESAR Digital Academy, which will ensure the sustainability of the knowledge gained beyond the duration of those individual research project activities. Recently launched, the academy’s mission is to nurture Europe’s brightest minds and advance learning, scientific excellence and innovation in aviation and ATM. Its aims include promoting student mobility and a whole spectrum of learning opportunities from fundamental research to industry-focussed applied research, and enhancing the knowledge, skills and employability of future aviation professionals.

Not only does it seek to bring together under one umbrella access to SESAR exploratory research activities and outreach relating to education and training but also to provide a hub supporting access to the professional learning opportunities offered by research centres, universities, industry partners and other entities within the ATM/aviation domain.

David Bowen heads a team of ATM experts providing the source of scientific, operational and technical knowledge within the Brussels-based SESAR JU ensuring the coherent development of the core operational concept and technical systems within the programme.

For many years, he was struck by how activities in the world of broader ATM research had become highly fragmented. “I thought that if we were just able to bring all this under an umbrella and give it an identity by putting a sort of overarching identity of an academy, we could not only raise its profile, but also by linking institutions and industry together, participants could start to get more value out of it.”

He thought there would be great value in getting the universities that are already providing ATM-related courses and research together with the air navigation service providers (ANSP) and the ATM manufacturing industries. That would provide new opportunities for doctoral students and allow the industry to tap into an educated pool of talent that already had some experience in ATM.

It could also provide a springboard for new activities, new initiatives that would involve more students and offer industry a deeper awareness about the breadth of education and training opportunities that – while they may exist today – are not always apparent.

The academy initiative coincided with the ramping up of the new Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) project within the academic ATM community. Called Engage, the KTN is a project led by the University of Westminster in the United Kingdom, which is similarly trying to develop links within the European academic community

The academy plans to tap into that network to build on the PhD work that SESAR is already funding through Engage, and to connect up with other existing aviation or ATM-related academic endeavours to develop a critical mass.

“We're putting together an interactive map of all the European universities that offer undergraduate and postgraduate courses in ATM-related subjects to give visibility to both the industry and students who are looking at where they can study,” explains Bowen. “Universities that are active in ATM research are not always aware of what another may be doing and we're finding out there's a lot of potential synergies, a lot of enthusiasm from all of these organisations to co-operate.”

Planned activities include regular technical workshops that have until now been exclusively internal affairs and the development of general ATM training materials that can be accessed online. Opportunities that exist in terms of traineeships and secondments will also be publicised better and the industrial membership of SESAR will be approached to offer more placements for students.

“There's a huge increase in the pace of change with regards to the type of expertise that will be needed by the industry such as skills in artificial intelligence and machine learning and cybersecurity,” explains Bowen. “Twenty years ago, we never thought about these becoming critical to the next steps in both the development and operation of ATM systems so we now need to develop the expertise for tomorrow's ATM by maintaining the flow of the next generation of professionals.”

Bowen points out that it is likely to be more challenging because, of course, those skills are potentially applicable in many other domains which could be attractive in terms of career vectors.

“We need to keep ATM on the map,” says Bowen, “and give it a good profile in terms of attracting the appropriate young talent. It's absolutely vital to maintain the profile of ATM as a potential career path for the next generation of students and that's where we can really play a role.”