Asia's millions of newly wealthy citizens are keen to travel, and new low-cost carriers are boosting fleets and routes to serve them. But the region's air traffic regime is inconsistent and non-homogeneous—which is why Singapore is taking steps to develop more localized air traffic management expertise.

It has set up the first regional Air Traffic Management Research Institute (ATMRI) as a joint venture by the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore. Under an initial agreement, CAAS will contribute $39 million and NTU $17.5 million to recruit and hire staff as well as finance R&D and establish facilities.

The CAAS states that this is the first step toward the development of “a vibrant and self-sustaining eco-system, comprising research institutes and think-tanks, academia, industry players, international ATM entities and aviation stakeholders.”

The Asia-Pacific region is expected to continue growing, accounting for 37% of global traffic by 2017, compared to 33% in 2012, says Ken McLean, Asia-Pacific regional director for safety and flight operations at the International Air Transport Association (IATA). “It is critical that the aviation infrastructure, including air traffic management, is able to accommodate this anticipated traffic growth,” he notes.

But the amount of regionally developed ATM expertise and technology is “still behind that of more developed regions,” says NTU spokesperson Lester Kok. “We still need to work on our [ATM] knowledge in the region, to help bring us up to speed. At the moment, we just buy technology,” he tells Aviation Week.

The new ATMRI facility will have more than 1,000 sq. meters (11,000 sq. ft.) devoted to “improving the efficiency of air traffic . . . by increasing the predictability of aircraft [regional] traffic patterns,” Kok says. “We will be looking at things as simple as aircraft turbulence to work out if we can reduce separation at takeoff and landing. If we can increase the frequencies, we could safely boost airport efficiency by up to 200%.”

But boosting capacity at one airport could result in bottlenecks and increased fuel usage at destination airports. “This means we have to ensure our research is done on a regional basis, and that we are looking at the big picture,” the NTU spokesperson says. To help, the institute's board is tapping experienced international advisers, including IATA's McLean; Richard Deakin, CEO at international ATC operator NATS U.K., and Singapore's air force chief, Lim Yeong Kiat.

An example of the work that the institute will research is the use of short-run landing strips. “We are looking at developing and testing new materials that can be used on shorter, more remote runways,” Kok says. The new materials will enable larger aircraft to land by reducing braking distances—something of key importance to the more remote Asia-Pacific airports. It also will look at the smart integration of weather and ATM command systems.

The ATMRI says it will investigate the possibility of minimizing what it calls “human performance” issues by developing direct machine-pilot and machine-machine communications without the need to go through a controller. “This will not only reduce the possibility of errors, it will speed things up, too,” Kok notes.

However, the new institute has much groundwork to do before it starts signing research deals with industry partners. “We are well aware of the need to produce more people with master's [degrees] and Ph.D.-level experience in the ATM sector,” says Kok. These will be hot-housed by the new center to help translate fundamental high-level research into feasible ATM applications for the real world. “And with Singapore's reputation as a place where the very highest standards are being applied in other areas, we think we have the perfect testbed for new [ATM] developments,” he says.