Airservices Australia: Digital transformation at an industry leader

Airservices Australia: Digital transformation at an industry leader

Airservices Australia is the country’s air navigator provider, managing 11 per cent of the world’s airspace while providing air traffic control, aviation rescue and firefighting services.

Owned by the Australian Government and governed by a board of directors appointed by the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Airservices Australia manages domestic and international air traffic operations for more than 154 million passengers on more than four million flights annually.

The industry and workforce have faced increasing disruptions over recent years, driven by new airspace entrants, continual growth in commercial aviation, new business models and digital technologies. As a result, Airservices – which has a $1.08 billion turnover and owns and operates a number of systems and services that are connected both internally and externally – reintroduced the role of chief information officer in May 2016.

Chris Seller, who has more than 30 years of experience in the IT industry in some of Australia's largest organisations including Westpac, Qantas and Jetstar, got the role, and established the Information Management and Data Services group in 2016. “This was a key message to customers, stakeholders and staff of Airservices’ commitment to move towards to customer-centric information service delivery,” Seller, who leads a 400-strong team, says. “We are modernising and streamlining our entire technology environment. Based on emerging aviation industry trends, it is clear that information driven services will need to play a broader role in the management of all airspace for all current and future users.”

He insists key programs to refresh the organisation’s telecommunications network, cybersecurity capabilities, technology infrastructure, corporate and business support systems are critical enablers to support its business agility ambitions. “Our strategy has focused on driving new and innovative technology outcomes, both internally and by working with industry partners to enable new operational efficiencies and customer services,” he adds.

Airservices Australia’s partners include NEC, Nokia, Telstra, Optus and SITA for telecommunications, Vault Cloud and ASG Group for technology infrastructure, SAP for business systems, and organisations like Saab, Frequentis, Metron, Ingegneria Dei Sistemi (IDS) and Thales Group for its air traffic management (ATM) systems.

Airservices is fundamentally transforming its information and technology services by integrating its Operational (Engineering) and Enterprise (ICT) capabilities to ensure it capitalises on the significant engineering and safety-critical design capabilities within the organisation, while introducing more contemporary ICT skills and techniques.

Five strategic imperatives have been defined that will shape the development of Airservices Australia’s information and technology roadmap:

  1. Customer focused Information Management – secure real-time information exchange across customer and stakeholder groups through the implementation of contemporary information management, analytics and reporting practices.
  2. Modernised ATM capabilities for performance-based operations – delivered through system and information integration based on a modern, scalable, and standardised enterprise architecture.
  3. Automation and digitisation – designed to enable business agility and improve information capture, processing and human-to-system interactions.
  4. Modernised, secure and agile ICT services – that support evolving business needs through the implementation of modular, scalable, commoditised technology infrastructure and telecommunications with isolation for protection of regulated safety critical components. 
  5. Cyber Security enhancements – to detect, prevent, protect, resolve and respond, enabling strict compliance requirements for critical national infrastructure while ensuring future developments can occur at a pace with confidence and trust in the integrity, confidentiality and availability of our information and systems assets.

Seller claims one of the biggest changes to the organisation has been the shift in the thinking from being an engineering organisation, focused on asset management, to becoming a digital organisation, with a focus on information management and more contemporary technology to support a more efficient, agile business.

“One of the biggest things that we did, was to sit down and map out what our priorities are,” he says. “How do we take an organisation, which is one of the most highly respected, and arguably one of the best air navigation providers in the world, to actually build on that capability, to make it better, and take it beyond the capability that we'd already achieved?”

That work spawned an ambitious 5-year technology roadmap.

“This roadmap sets out a digital transformation strategy essential for us to achieve our ambition. The first thing that was clear, was that when you're coming from a very asset centric engineering organisation, you need to start looking at the culture, and move away from being an owner/operator, someone who builds things and operates them, to somebody who can identify how to source fit-for-purpose solutions, whether they be internal or externally provided, and integrate them to solve business problems.”

The first stage of the technology overhaul has been to migrate the support for all the technical infrastructure that runs the business side – email, the agency’s systems of record, the desktop environment, etc. to an ‘as a service’ model.  ASG Group was awarded this infrastructure as a service contract and partnered with an Australian cloud services company - Vault Cloud.

“The migration to Vault’s secure private cloud environment has occurred over the past six months resulting in one of the largest and most successful cloud migrations undertaken by an Australian Federal Government agency to date.” The next stage of the infrastructure transformation will be to modernise the agency’s complex telecommunications infrastructure.

“Our operations are highly dependent on reliable and resilient telecommunications. Our network covers much of the Australian continent and has grown organically over many years to meet the needs of our air traffic operations and business systems.  We have recently done a full review of our future telecommunications needs and how future space-based services will integrate with our terrestrial services. We have begun the work on this modernisation program which will take about 2 years to complete.”

Another big driver for the digital strategy is the ambitious Digital Information Program, which will deliver enhanced information management capabilities and a broader information driven strategic direction through to the end of the next decade and beyond.

“That's our ability to aggregate the data from a myriad of sources across our operational world, and our back office, into a standardised platform that then allows us to securely and efficiently process and distribute that information, both internally and externally,” Seller explains.

“Previously, we hadn't thought about how we might apply analytics beyond our basic operational needs but we believe we have the capability and know-how to add value way beyond what we have traditionally done. Much of the data that we manage in our environment, if we apply the right analytics, and the right transformation processes, becomes valuable – helping our customers and partners work smarter and perform better.”

“This platform, and the transformation in our information management capabilities, are two really big priorities that we're working on at the moment. The organisation is very keen for us to drive those initiatives as fast as we can.”

When modernising such an environment with more contemporary capability, security threats are a real issue. As a consequence, Airservices Australia is undertaking a major cyber security programme. “Our posture has always been that we're a very safety orientated organisation, and we argue that we are one of the most safety conscious organisations in the country,” he says. “But we've started to introduce the concept that, ‘can we really be sure it's safe if it's not secure?’ If we're going to aggregate this data and distribute it, people will want to know that that is being done securely.”

“That gives us the best chance of delivering secure industry and customer outcomes more flexibly and faster than we've been able to do in the past.” he says.

Another major initiative that builds on the capabilities being delivered by the digital platform is the Airport Collaborative Decision Making (A-CDM) program. “Airservices has been an industry leader in the Collaborative Decision-Making concept, where Airservices, Aircraft Operators and Airports work together through the exchange of real time information to optimise air traffic network operations. Significant benefits for the industry and travelling public can be achieved through implementing A-CDM which is aimed at taxi time and air traffic flow management delay reductions.”

Airservices Air Traffic Flow Management program will be another world first, using software built by Metron, the company will soon be able to integrate international flights into its demand and capacity program that manages traffic flow efficiency at all of the major aerodromes across the country.

“This is another example of an information based collaborative decision-making system”,” he explains. “We have a system that looks at the runway demand, weather and other operational constraints to calculate how many aircraft can land safely at any particular time at a particular aerodrome.”

“This morning, with very heavy fog in Sydney we would have had to significantly reduce arrivals or departures for a period of time. What we do is run a demand simulation that sets the safe movement numbers and we work with the airlines to assist them to figure out the impacts across the network and what options they have if they can't land in Sydney. Do they cancel? Do they delay? What are the operational and customer impacts across the day etc?”

“We’re currently building the capability to integrate international flights into the same programme. This will allow us to provide real time network information to the airlines so they can make trajectory adjustments during the most efficient part of their flight to best fit in with the domestic operations at their destination aerodrome.”

Another exciting development is the investment in Digital Aerodrome Services. The opportunity is to use multiple high definition camera arrays to provide a digital view of operations at an aerodrome. This means air traffic controllers will be watching real time high-quality video images – reducing emphasis on the traditional 360-degree view from a cabin high above a central point at the aerodrome. "This technology is in its early stages of its evolution and we see huge benefits in the near future as new capabilities like machine learning and pattern recognition are integrated to augment the services provided by controllers.”

All these initiatives are also aimed at supporting Airservices Australia’s ambitious Aircraft Navigation Modernisation Program, OneSKY, which is delivering the new joint civilian and military air traffic system (CMATS).

“This is the first time in the world that this has been done at this scale, and with these many partners, anywhere, so there's a lot of focus on that,” he explains. “And that will drive the predictability of passengers’ journeys.”

Part of that program is already live and the core system that the air traffic controllers use will come online around 2024, cementing the technology – which has taken decades to build – as the most modern and up to date air traffic control system globally.

With all of this technology transformation Airservices is exploring how to use its partners more efficiently without having to become the technical experts for every system used in their operations.

“We think that the suppliers and the manufacturers of these systems are often better placed to support us when it comes to detail design and maintenance activities, our role should be to ensure we are getting the best solutions and services required to maintain our operations to the highest standards.” he explains.

“We must also embed agility and speed into our delivery. To succeed, we need to continue our fundamental cultural change. Supporting this are technology services, solutions and business partnerships that focus on innovation, automation and digitalisation – ruthlessly driving standardisation as well as creating new value outcomes.”

We are really proud of the team we have in place – we are building from solid foundation, with teams that have a strong service delivery focus and deep ATM expertise. Their collective efforts over the past couple of years have been outstanding. As we look to the future, we will need to embrace change to ensure we balance these foundations with the right blend of technologies and new capabilities to meet the challenges that lie ahead.”

Chris Seller