The invention relates to an automatic update and execution of a flight plan based on a detected runway configuration. The Examining Division refused the application alleging the determination of the runway configuration was not technical and it was purely algorithmic techniques determining the direction in which to land or start and calculating the shortest way to get there merely reflected a “resource scheduling and traveling salesman approach”.
The Board agreed with the applicant that although operational research algorithms may well be involved in the recalculation of the flight plan, it is not a computer-based implementation of a resource scheduling or traveling salesman algorithm. While the assignment and update of runway configurations may be considered administrative measures, determining an airport’s current runway configuration using computer means and based on surveillance data has a technical character and allows automatically adapting the aircraft’s route to the current runway configuration.
Here are the practical takeaways from the decision T 0270/20 (Runway configuration/BOEING) of the Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.01.
The invention was summarised by the Board as follows:
The invention concerns the automatic update and execution of an airplane flight plan on the basis of the configuration of runways at a departure or destination airport (page 6, lines 5 to 12). While an early determination of the runway configuration can improve the efficiency of a flight plan, not all airports publish and regularly update this information. Known methods for estimating the runway configuration are computationally expensive, as they require the tracking and geometric modeling of the arriving and departing flights (description, page 1, lines 11 to 24).
To overcome these problems, a computer determines the current runway configuration using the airport’s surveillance data (for example, data provided by the automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast system or secondary radars), by defining a three-dimensional mesh centered on the airport and counting the number of airplanes in each cell of the mesh for a given time period (page 2, lines 5 to 20). A system installed on the aircraft then calculates and autonomously executes a new flight plan on the basis of the determined runway configuration (page 13, line 28 to page 14, line 11).
Claim 1 of the Main Request
A computer-implemented method for updating an aircraft flight plan, comprising:
retrieving (210) recorded surveillance data (214) including instances of aircraft positions (216) at an airport;
determining (220) a plurality of three-dimensional surveillance cells (302) at each end (310a, 310b) of at least one runway (102) of the airport;
computing (230) a count of a number of aircraft positions (216) within each surveillance cell (302);
determining (240) a current configuration for each runway (102) based on the count computed for the surveillance cells (302) of the runway (102);
updating the flight plan of an aircraft based on the current runway configuration of the airport; and
autonomously executing, by a system installed onboard the aircraft, the updated flight plan (1330).
Is it patentable?
In the decision under appeal, the examining division held that the subject-matter of claim 1 lacked inventive step as it was a straightforward implementation of non-technical features on a general-purpose computer. This was the finding of the Examining Division as summarised by the Board:
2. The examining division took the view that claim 1 of the sole request was a straightforward implementation of non-technical features on a general purpose computer.
In particular, the determination of the runway configuration was not considered technical, as it consisted of purely algorithmic techniques applied to data retrieved from well-known sources (e.g. radars). Determining the direction in which to land or start and calculating the shortest way to get there merely reflected a “resource scheduling and traveling salesman approach”.
Furthermore, the examining division interpreted the expression “autonomously executing, by a system installed on-board the aircraft, the updated flight plan” as merely indicating the display of the updated flight plan to the pilot, and therefore a presentation of information with no technical effect. It appears that this interpretation was based on the consideration that, in normal operation of the flight management system (FMS), “the execution of the flight plan means to display the flight plan to the pilot” (see decision, point 1.1.1). Since the actual route followed by the aircraft depended on the pilot’s intervention or reaction to the updated plan, the division argued the presence of a “broken technical chain” (in the sense of decision T 1741/08 – “GUI layout/SAP”), and thus the lack of a direct technical effect on the airplane.
However, the Board disagreed with the interpretation of the Examining Division as follows:
3. In the Board’s view, the examining division’s interpretation of the execution of the updated plan as a mere display of information is not warranted by the wording of the claim, not even when read in the light of the application as a whole. In particular, no part of the application suggests that the “execution” of the flight plan should be narrowly interpreted as “display”.
Moreover, according to the description, the updated flight plan can be transmitted to the Flight Management Unit (FMU) “for execution (e.g. to carry out an updated flight path or an updated taxiing plan)” (see page 14, lines 6 to 8). The Board notes that the function of a FMS in modern airplanes is not limited to presenting flight plans to the pilot. It executes a number of functions which include flight planning, navigation, lateral and vertical guidance, and can be operatively connected to the autopilot, to which the calculated steering and thrust commands can be transmitted for execution.
4. In view of the above, the Board is of the opinion that the skilled person would interpret the feature “autonomously executing, by a system installed onboard the aircraft, the updated flight plan (1330)” as implying a continuous and autonomous guidance of the aircraft according to the updated plan. Therefore, the examining division’s arguments regarding a possible “broken technical chain” must fail.
The Board is further of the opinion that the skilled person would be able, without undue burden, to program commonly known on-board flight control systems to autonomously execute the updated flight plan. The requirements of Article 83 EPC are therefore respected.
Based on this assessment, the Board agreed with the applicant that the features of the claim were technical:
5. The Board agrees with the appellant that the invention does not consist in the computer-based implementation of a resource scheduling or traveling salesman algorithm. Although operational research algorithms may well be involved in the recalculation of the flight plan, they are not even part of the claimed subject matter.
6. While the assignment and update of runway configurations may be considered administrative measures, in the Board’s view determining an airport’s current runway configuration using computer means and based on surveillance data in the manner described in claim 1 has a technical character.
7. Accordingly, the Board concludes that the examining division erred in considering the subject matter of claim 1 an obvious implementation of non-technical requirements on a general purpose computer.
All the features of claim 1 have a technical character and synergistically interact to automatically adapt the aircraft’s route to the current runway configuration. Hence, they should have all been taken into account for the assessment of inventive step.
The Board then granted the patent based on the request.
You can read the full decision here: T 0270/20 (Runway configuration/BOEING) of the Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.01.