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The new partnership is designed to exploit new approaches to AI that enable increases in safety, capacity and environmental sustainability while streamlining air traffic controller training. 

Multi-million project will shape the future of sustainable aviation

A ground-breaking new research project, designed to help develop the world’s first AI air traffic control system, has received a multi-million pound funding boost.

The pioneering study, led by experts from the University of Exeter, will help design and shape the future of sustainable aviation across the sector. 

The research - a £13.75 million collaboration between NATS, The Alan Turing Institute, the Universities of Exeter and Cambridge - has been funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)’s prosperity partnership programme. 

Called Project Bluebird - An AI system for Air Traffic Control (Advancing Probabilistic Machine Learning to Deliver Safer, More Efficient, and Predictable Air Traffic Control)’, the project will be led byProfessor Tim Dodwell, alongside Professor Richard Everson and Dr Edmond Awad (Business School) from Exeter as co-investigators. 

The ambition of the partnership is to develop the fundamental science to deliver the world's first AI system to control a section of airspace in live trials, by developing a digital twin alongside a multi-agent machine-learning control system for UK airspace.  

Crucially, the partnership will also develop technical approaches to deploy trustworthy AI systems, considering how safety, explainability and ethics are embedded to deliver new tools which work in harmony with air traffic controllers in a safety-critical environment. 

Professor Dodwell explained: “This is a truly interdisciplinary programme which brings together leading researchers across data science and AI to tackle a fundamental challenges within a key UK infrastructure. The deployment of AI systems in safety critical systems is an open challenge for future adoption of many AI technologies, as a community we are really excited to leading in area.” 

Little has changed in the fundamental infrastructure of UK airspace in the past 50 years, but demand for aviation has increased a hundredfold. Aviation 2050, a recent government green paper, underlines the importance of the aviation network to the prosperity of the UK to the value of £22 billion annually.  

However, the UK is at risk without rapid action to modernise our airspace and control methods, to ensure they can handle a future increase in UK passenger traffic of over 50% by 2050 and new challenges arising from unmanned aircraft, both against a backdrop of increasing global pressures to transform the sector's  

The anticipated benefits of AI systems to air traffic control have come at a critical time, providing an opportunity to respond effectively to the unprecedented challenges which arise from a triad of crises: the coronavirus 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic, Brexit and global warming.  

The new partnership is designed to exploit new approaches to AI that enable increases in safety, capacity and environmental sustainability while streamlining air traffic controller training. 

Professor Richard Everson, the Director of Exeter’s Institute for Data Science and Artificial Intelligence said: “We are delighted to be part of this exciting partnership to develop an ambitious AI system to automate and control a section of airspace using AI, and helping to advance and shape the future of sustainable aviation.” 

Professor Zhongdong Wang, Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences at the University of Exeter said: "I am delighted that our academics are leading this EPSRC prosperity partnership programme, which fits well with the long-term research strategy and vision of the College in the area of data-centric engineering. 

"We are particularly interested in building a long-term collaborative relationship with industry and business sectors for data science, AI and Machine Learning applications”.

Date: 22 July 2021

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