The Digital Aviation Research and Technology Centre (DARTeC) is being built at Cranfield University and will spearhead the UK’s research into digital aviation technology.

The Centre is part of three major Cranfield University themes: Transport Systems, Aerospace and Manufacturing.

DARTeC will address research challenges facing the aviation industry such as:

  • the integration of drones into civilian airspace;
  • increasing the efficiency of airports through technological advances;
  • creating safe, secure shared airspace through secure data communication infrastructures;
  • increasing the reliability and availability of aircraft through self-sensing, self-aware technologies.

Game-changing technologies such as a digital air traffic control tower and next-generation radar technologies on the University’s licensed airport create a unique research and development environment.

Co-investment support for DARTeC is being provided through a consortium of leading aerospace and aviation companies including Aveillant, Boxarr, the IVHM Centre, Saab and Thales – as well as Research England and Cranfield University. Since its launch the DARTeC consortium has grown to include additional organisations, namely Blue Bear Systems Research, the Connected Places Catapult, IATA and the Satellite Applications Catapult.

DARTeC research challenges

DARTeC research challenges

Connected systems

Air traffic management modernisation, coupled with the data-centric architectures being incorporated into modern aircraft, will create this same concept in the sky of the future. Aircraft, which are already becoming nodes within airborne networks, will need to be sharing data with other aircraft, ground-based operational teams and air traffic controllers at speeds that the current Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting Systems (ACARS) and the Aircraft Condition Monitoring Systems (ACMS) are not capable of producing. As the aviation industry is expanding, changing, and becoming increasingly connected, it is now dependent on information and communications technology (ICT) to operate the global air transportation system. 

Unmanned traffic management

The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) market is growing exponentially (currently £1.6 billion; estimated £100 billion by 2020) and such growth is putting further pressure on airspace management. International initiatives are seeking airspace management solutions that will bring higher levels of system resilience, safety and security, but such solutions will need to adapt to competition from UAVs to operate in the same airspace, often using "pop-up" airfields, and at the same time deal with new cyber-security threats.

Seamless passenger experience

With a focus on a seamless passenger experience, the role of the airport, airlines and their relationship with their passenger customer base is being fundamentally reconsidered. Airlines are already embracing social media and app-based notifications to enhance the flight booking process, and both airlines and airports are seeking to provide a more personalised, intuitive and less stressful passenger experience whilst reducing processing time in the terminal. Topics such as unified security, the elimination of triple waiting areas, optimised passenger flows and baggage separation are already being discussed. Similarly, the whole role of the airport and its relationship to the wider environments is under closer examination; should airports grow or shrink, what is their connectivity to urban environments (city boarding, for example) and how are they going to be configured for future personal air traffic and drones? From the airlines' perspective, operations, disruption and revenue management are all key areas of interest.

Distributed airport/airspace management

Delays caused by the fragmentation of the European airspace costs at least £4 billion a year. Capacity constraints alone in European airports could cost up to 818,000 jobs by 2035, according to the Aviation Strategy for Europe. Delayed and cancelled flights caused by both airspace and ground congestion have a negative impact on passenger experience and airline/airport efficiency. The next generation of air traffic control will require automation in order to meet safety, reliability, flexibility, and robustness demands in an environment of steadily increasing air traffic density and 'on-demand' requests. There will be a need for distributed air traffic flow management strategies to minimise departure and arrival schedule deviations based on en-route air traffic system models consisting of air-routes, waypoints, and airports.

Conscious aircraft

The concept of 'conscious aircraft' is emerging. Using an understanding of human consciousness plus the latest developments within the fields of Integrated Vehicle Health Management (IVHM) and Artificial Intelligence (AI), a 'conscious aircraft' can be conceived. Such an aircraft would monitor current platform health, reliably predicting the remaining useful life of components and systems, then automatically reconfiguring them to optimise remaining life. Data would be further synchronised with ground-based systems to optimise how the aircraft is managed through its lifecycle. Future Maintenance Repair Overhaul and Logistics (MROL) actions would be minimised thereby reducing operational costs and moving towards a 'zero maintenance' platform within a 'hangar of the future' with no surprises for the operator.