When thinking of sustainability in aviation and the way to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint, technological improvements – i.e. more efficient engines, more efficient fuselage design, or the use of sustainable aviation fuel instead of regular fuel – are what often comes to one’s mind first. What can easily be forgotten are the emission reductions and cost savings that can be achieved through operational improvements.
One such improvement is trajectory-based operations which use real-time data to optimize flight paths. To test this concept in action across borders, Boeing recently conducted a trajectory-based operations demonstration flight crossing multiple airspaces.
Continue reading to learn more about the multi-regional trajectory-based operations (MR TBO) project and the demonstration flight flown using Boeing’s latest ecoDemonstrator aircraft.
Trajectory-Based Operations: Using 4D Data to Optimize Flight Routes
If you ever used Google Maps while driving, chances are you encountered the following situation: your original routing showed going through Street A but over time, as you drive in its direction, a traffic jam builds up on that street. The app, understanding the new conditions, decides that taking Street B instead of Street A will get you to your destination faster and generates a new route. This is similar to the approach taken when trajectory-based operations (TBO) are used in air traffic management.
As the FAA explains, TBO put aircraft trajectories defined in four dimensions – i.e. latitude, longitude, altitude, and time – at the core. Each trajectory “represents a common reference for where an aircraft is expected to be – and when – at key points along its route.” Combining all of the trajectories provides an overview of the airspace that can be used for traffic management.
With TBO, just like now, a plan detailing what route a flight will take is set prior to departure. However, rather than relying on voice communication for adjusting the plan, TBO uses communication technologies such as SWIM (System-wide Information Management) to negotiate these adjustments and automatically share them with other stakeholders.
In the other direction, pilots can receive trajectory modification suggestions based on changes in the overall system. The pilots can then choose to accept or deny the suggested changes.
One thing that makes implementing TBO in aviation exponentially more difficult than in your average car navigation app is the need to keep many different stakeholders in the loop in real-time. This means, having to integrate all of the systems that are now used by airlines, airports, air traffic control, and others.
More Efficient Airspace Use and Reduced Fuel Burn Through TBO
Overcoming the challenge of implementing TBO promises considerable benefits in terms of optimizing how airspaces are utilized. As Dr. Kirk Vining, Boeing Commercial Aircraft’s Chief Pilot for Airplane Development and one of the two captains operating Boeing’s MR TBO demonstration flight noted at a press conference in Tokyo:
In the past when I would make a request to change my route, the air traffic controller would do their very best to try to accommodate me. But, my change might affect other airplanes around. So [air traffic control] can optimize my flight but it might hurt the others.
With MR TBO, before I ever make the request, I can work with the iPad and begin asking the questions and all the navigation service providers can work together to optimize not only my flight but also all the other flights at the same time.
Boeing expects that TBO “can reduce an airplane’s fuel use and emissions by up to 10%.” Its rival Airbus has high expectations from this operational improvement too, claiming TBO has the potential to reduce “[the] inaccuracy of current air traffic management prediction models by approximately 30-40%.”
Boeing’s MR TBO Flight: One ecoDemonstrator Explorer, Four Countries
To show how TBO could work across multiple airspaces using existing technologies, Boeing partnered with air navigation service providers in four countries – the US, Japan, Singapore, and Thailand – to conduct a multi-regional trajectory-based operations demonstration flight. The flight was operated by Boeing’s latest ecoDemonstrator Explore 787-10 (registration N8290V).
After being ferried from its base in Charleston to Everett on June 10, 2023, the ecoDemonstrator Explore departed bound for Tokyo Narita on the first of the MR TBO demonstration flight’s four legs on June 11, 2023. It landed in Tokyo at 10:54AM on June 12, 2023.
The 9+ hours long flight allowed Boeing, the FAA, and the Japan Civil Aviation Bureau (JCAB) to test TBO on a transoceanic flight and, among other things, to simulate how TBO would work in case of a volcanic eruption happening along the planned route.
At Narita Airport, the JCAB and Boeing held a press conference explaining the MR TBO project in detail. During the press conference, Koji Takahashi, JCAB’s Director-General of Air Navigation Services Department, and Patty Chang-Chien, Boeing’s Vice President and General Manager of Boeing Research & Technology, signed a “Declaration of Intent on Multi Regional Trajectory Based Operations (MR TBO).”
The declaration came pre-signed by an FAA representative and was signed by the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) and Aeronautical Radio of Thailand (Aerothai) over the next couple of days too.
Boeing signed the declaration in Japan to stress the importance of the company’s relationship with the country. As Boeing Japan’s President Will Shaffer noted during the press conference, Japan is Boeing’s largest partner outside of the United States and 35% of the 787’s materials/parts are provided by Japanese companies like Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Subaru, and Toray.
The ecoDemonstrator 787-10 departed Tokyo on June 13, 2023, bound for Singapore. After a nearly eight-hour flight and a day in Singapore, the aircraft flew a short 2-hour hop to Bangkok on June 14, 2023. Finally, the aircraft took off for the final, fourth leg of the MR TBO demonstration flight, from Bangkok Suvarnabhumi International Airport to Everett, at 2:48PM on June 16, 2023.
Flying through Thai, Japan, and US airspaces – and crossing the International Date Line – the flight landed back in Everett 25 minutes “before” it departed Bangkok, at 2:23PM on June 16, 2023.
Implementing TBO at scale and thus creating an environment where real-time sharing of flight trajectories is possible has the potential to make airspace usage more efficient and considerably cut down CO2 emissions and the amount of fuel used.
To show how this operational improvement could work even with existing onboard technologies, Boeing used one of its ecoDemonstrator aircraft – the ecoDemonstrator Explore 787-10 – to conduct an MR TBO demonstration flight. As part of the flight, the manufacturer partnered with four air navigation service providers – the FAA, the JCAB, the CAAS, and Aerothai.
The demo flight took off from Everett on June 11, 2023, where it returned five days later after flying to Tokyo Narita, Singapore, and Bangkok.