Innovation in aviation: The Digital Sky Challenge through the eyes of the winners

ACI EUROPE and the SESAR Joint Undertaking, with the support of key aviation partners, organised the Digital Sky Challenge from 2 to 4 December 2019 in Athens. Hosted by Athens International Airport, the event was Europe’s first 48-hour competition taking place at an airport premises. We spoke with the three winning teams to find out more about their experience and plans for the solutions they developed. Inês Rebelo reports.

The Digital Sky Challenge was jointly organised by ACI EUROPE, SESAR Joint Undertaking and Athens International Airport from 2 to 4 December 2019 in Athens. The 48-hour innovation sprint aimed at showing what could be achieved by harnessing data and technologies for aviation.

It was the most stand-out moment in 2019 for everyone involved1, from the organisers and mentors to the 12 competing teams. For the first time ever, the entire European aviation industry – airports, airlines, aviation organisations and aviation-related business partners – joined forces to make an extensive dataset available to a group of young passionate coders. The aim? Create new digital solutions for aviation, particularly focused on streamlining the passenger journey, improving the environmental performance of Europe’s airspace and enhancing safety.

52 young software programmers, data scientists and designers from 11 European countries were grouped into 12 teams in Athens. They competed for three challenges: Passenger Experience, Environment and Safety. Three teams ultimately triumphed (one team by challenge) based on the level of innovation, business value, design and overall quality of the prototypes developed.

Innov’ATM, winners of the Passenger Experience challenge

Innov’ATM was the winner of the Passenger Experience challenge. The team came up with an innovative app, PaxKeeper, to reduce the stress of travelling while improving airline punctuality. The app helps to track passengers with their consent, so that airlines, airports and air traffic controllers (ATC) know where they are. It also offers clear benefits, which are marketable and achievable.

Olivier Jankovec, Director General ACI EUROPE (left), and Dr Yiannis Paraschis, CEO Athens International Airport (right) with Innov’ATM, the winners of the Passenger Experience challenge.

Innov’ATM

“Winning the Digital Sky Challenge (Passenger Experience) was a great moment. The atmosphere was incredible, not to mention the awards ceremony. The Innov’ATM team fully enjoyed the experience.

The multiple exchanges we had with the mentors greatly contributed to “PaxKeeper”, our prototype. The mentors were really amazing and also very educational. The jury was very constructive and relevant as well.

There is a moment we particularly recall: during the second night, the team worked until 5am. Despite the fatigue, we really felt that something special was about to happen. Our product became more and more meaningful and the motivation of the team was unquestionable. It was a really groundbreaking moment!

PaxKeeper is now under active development and we are currently setting up a partnership with a major airport and a major airline in order to carry out an experiment.

Undoubtedly for us aviation is a very interesting sector. There are many different use cases and the variety of technologies that are needed to meet the needs make the industry quite unique.

We think that the aviation industry must absolutely innovate in order to evolve towards more efficiency and a more resource-friendly mode of transport. Events like the Digital Sky Challenge tend to open up new opportunities for innovation to players who are sometimes unfamiliar with the aviation sector. It was very interesting to see the diversity of team profiles that participated in the event.”

Another challenge linked to innovation in the aviation sector that could be of great interest is the use of artificial intelligence in order to assist end users.

Eco-Travelers, winners of the Environment challenge

Eco-Travelers won the Environment challenge. The team developed a tool that allows passengers to select the best and most green mobility option, integrating multiple modes of transport. The tool took into account existing systems and carbon offsetting schemes.

Marco Sciscio, Policy Officer for Single European Sky European, Directorate Mobility & Transport, European Commission (centre) with Eco-Travelers, the winners of the Environment challenge.

Eco-Travelers

“We felt very proud of ourselves for winning the Environment challenge of the Digital Sky Challenge. Our team had complementary knowledge and skills, which turned out to be a great asset during the competition. This 48-hour adventure was demanding, but rich in emotions. Overall, this experience has been very rewarding to all of us.

Our solution “Eco-Travelers” was inspired by the collaboration between Sopra Steria (our employer) and Toulouse Metropole in the Urban Innovative Action, known as COMMUTE, which is funded by the European Commission. COMMUTE promotes a new innovative approach in Toulouse to significantly change peoples’ travel patterns. COMMUTE is a digital platform that offers mobility solutions that contribute to the reduction of traffic through the adoption of new ways of working (e.g. telecommuting, modular timetable), mobility services (e.g. car sharing, ride sharing for small distances), as well as new infrastructure (autonomous shuttles).

Some of our team members are involved in the COMMUTE project. That’s why during our brainstorming we thought of it. “Eco-Travelers” can be seen as a new solution for longer journeys and therefore as an extension of COMMUTE, which is mainly targeted at local travel.

The most special moment for us was the announcement that we were the winners. We did not have any particular expectations. We were happy and proud (and a little intimidated, truth be told!) to be selected for this challenge. This allowed us to interact with other teams, who had also done a great job and presented lots of interesting ideas.

The mentors and the jury were experts in the field. They were always available and involved in our brainstorming sessions. We really appreciated their help and kindness.

When we came back from Athens, we presented “Eco-Travelers” to the rest of Sopra Steria and it was the centre of a lot of discussions. We believe that “Eco-Travelers” has a promising future. We continue to promote the concept and are open to any opportunity that may arise.

Aviation is one of the major industries that Sopra Steria targets. It is a very attractive industry that offers a large number of possibilities in terms of innovation and security. We consider that it is important to innovate in aviation, because it concerns everyone. It is a business that covers a wide range of issues related to security, environment, accessibility, to name but a few.

This kind of event promotes the creation of new solutions and the sharing of ideas. If we look ahead and if we take into account the fact that traffic grows significantly each year, we need to find innovative and fast solutions for a sustainable air transport sector. “Zero waste on board” could be a good theme to come up with new solutions.”

JBM, winners of the Safety challenge

JBM won the Safety challenge by successfully developing from scratch a safety net capable of analysing distances between aircraft in order to alert and thus avert potential incidents.

Philippe Merlo, Director DECMA, EUROCONTROL (right) with JBM, the winners of the Safety challenge.

JBM

“We are a team of four members – all graduated students of Electrical and Software Engineering from the National Technical University of Athens.

It was a great success for us to win the Safety challenge of the Digital Sky Challenge, in particular because we did not have any experience in aviation. When we heard we had won, we were speechless. It was absolutely unexpected. Apart from the Safety challenge, we were also extremely happy to win two additional prizes as special recognition from reputable industry stakeholders like Honeywell and Airbus. It was a breathtaking moment!

Our common goal was the victory. We worked hard to achieve it and this was the real motivation for us. Also, when we are coding the only goal we pursue is to implement exactly what we have in mind.

The most exciting moment was the last day of competition around 5am, when the majority of participants were taking a nap and we were the only participants solving the last aspects of our project. This was a stressful and exciting moment at the same time, not least because it led us to the victory.

The jury consisted of top-level aviation professionals, so their standards were very high as should be the case. Mentors were very important for us, because we had no background in aviation and they shared technical details and knowledge with us.

We believe that aviation needs to be upgraded with features like Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning so as to adapt to the future needs of the industry by using new technologies.

We are confident that we have a powerful product as service and we aim to provide it to the Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) for further analysis to help them in their work.

The aviation industry has many challenges to be addressed. As we have expertise in Artificial Intelligence, we want to further apply and explore it in this industry.

We know that there is a new era of Digital Transformation in all industries. The aviation industry needs to adapt to this new era. This can be possible by making good use of the amount of data available through the implementation of new technologies.

We consider that Passenger Experience and Environment are the most challenging themes for aviation that can be addressed in future events of this kind.”

The Digital Sky Challenge is a powerful example of how aviation is all about innovation and collaboration. There is no question that working with innovators outside the aviation industry and seeking fresh ideas help aviation to stay ahead of the curve and meet the future needs of its own business and of society in general.

For more information, visit: www.digitalskychallenge.eu

[1] ACI EUROPE, SESAR JU and Athens International Airport teamed up with EUROCONTROL, IATA, EASA, CANSO, Air France, Lufthansa, SITA, Fraport, Avinor, Groupe ADP, MetSafe, Météo France, Météorage, Innaxis Research Institute, OpenSky Network, Founda.tion and BeMyApp.

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