Robust Aircraft Trajectory Optimization under Meteorological Uncertainty


The Air Traffic Management (ATM) system in the busiest airspaces in the world is currently being overhauled to deal with multiple capacity, socioeconomic, and environmental challenges. One major pillar of this process is the shift towards a concept of operations centered on aircraft trajectories (called Trajectory-Based Operations or TBO in Europe) instead of rigid airspace structures. However, its successful implementation (and, thus, the realization of the associated improvements in ATM performance) rests on appropriate understanding and management of uncertainty. Due to its complex socio-technical structure, the design and operations of the ATM system are heavily impacted
by uncertainty, proceeding from multiple sources and propagating through the interconnections between its subsystems. One major source of ATM uncertainty is weather. Due to its nonlinear and chaotic nature, a number of meteorological phenomena of interest cannot be forecasted with complete accuracy at arbitrary lead times, which leads to uncertainty or disruption in individual air and ground operations that propagates to all ATM processes. Therefore, in order to achieve the goals of SESAR and similar programs, it is necessary to deal with meteorological uncertainty at multiple scales, from the trajectory prediction and planning processes to flow and traffic management operations. This thesis addresses the problem of single-aircraft flight planning considering two important sources of meteorological uncertainty: wind prediction error and convective activity. As the actual wind field deviates from its forecast, the actual trajectory will diverge in time from the planned trajectory, generating uncertainty in arrival times, sector entry and exit times, and fuel burn. Convective activity also impacts trajectory predictability, as it leads pilots to deviate from their planned route, creating challenging situations for controllers. In this work, we aim to develop algorithms and methods for aircraft trajectory optimization that are able to integrate information about the uncertainty in these meteorological phenomena into the flight planning process at both pre-tactical (before departure) and tactical horizons (while the aircraft is airborne), in order to generate more efficient and predictable trajectories. To that end, we frame flight planning as an optimal control problem, modeling the motion of the aircraft with a point-mass model and the BADA performance model. Optimal control methods represent a flexible and general approach that has a long history of success in the aerospace field. As a numerical scheme, we use direct methods, which can deal with nonlinear systems of moderate and high-dimensional state spaces in a computationally manageable way. Nevertheless, while this framework is well-developed in the context of deterministic problems, the techniques for the solution of practical  optimal control problems under uncertainty are not as mature, and the methods proposed in the literature are not applicable to the flight planning problem as it is now understood. The first contribution of this thesis addresses this challenge by introducing a framework for the solution of general nonlinear optimal control problems under parametric uncertainty. It is based on an ensemble trajectory scheme, where the trajectories of the system under multiple scenarios are considered simultaneously within the same dynamical system and the uncertain optimal control problem is turned into a large conventional optimal control problem that can be then solved by standard, well-studied direct methods in optimal control. We then employ this approach to solve the robust flight plan optimization problem at the planning horizon. In order to model uncertainty in the wind and estimating the probability of convective conditions, we employ Ensemble Prediction System (EPS) forecasts, which are composed by multiple predictions instead of a single deterministic one. The resulting method can be used to optimize flight plans for maximum expected efficiency according to the cost structure of the airline; additionally, predictability and exposure to convection can be incorporated as additional objectives. The inherent tradeoffs between these objectives can be assessed with this methodology. The second part of this thesis presents a solution for the rerouting of aircraft in uncertain convective weather scenarios at the tactical horizon. The uncertain motion of convective weather cells is represented with a stochastic model that has been developed from the output of a deterministic satellite-based nowcast product, Rapidly Developing Thunderstorms (RDT). A numerical optimal control framework, based on the pointmass model with the addition of turn dynamics, is employed for optimizing efficiency and predictability of the proposed trajectories in the presence of uncertainty about the future evolution of the storm. Finally, the optimization process is initialized by a randomized heuristic procedure that generates multiple starting points. The combined framework is able to explore and as exploit the space of solution trajectories in order to provide the pilot or the air traffic controller with a set of different suggested avoidance trajectories, as well as information about their expected cost and risk. The proposed methods are tested on example scenarios based on real data, showing how different user priorities lead to different flight plans and what tradeoffs are then present. These examples demonstrate that the solutions described in this thesis are adequate for the problems that have been formulated. In this way, the flight planning process can be enhanced to increase the efficiency and predictability of individual aircraft trajectories, which would lead to higher predictability levels of the ATM system and thus improvements in multiple performance indicators.