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Remote control

London City Airport will introduce the UK’s first digital air traffic control in 2020. Keith Mwanalushi learns how digital tower solutions will transform the airport’s future

The latest trend in Air Traffic Control (ATC) technology is the movement towards remote tower services. Clearly, new technologies open up opportunities that could cut costs, and in some markets like India, possibly overcome labour shortages.

In the UK, London City Airport (LCY) announced in May 2017 that it will build and operate a digital air traffic control tower, with a multi-million pound investment in the technology.

“The current control tower is 30 years old and needs significant remedial work to remain operational,” Charlotte Beeching, Head of Communications at London City Airport, tells Low Cost & Regional Airline Business.

NATS, the UK’s provider of air traffic control services, endorsed the decision to replace the existing 30-year-old control tower with a digital equivalent, developed by Saab Digital Air Traffic Solutions.

Rather than continually patching up the old tower, Beeching states it will be replaced with a digital solution, as recommended by NATS, which provides several advantages over a traditional tower, including significantly enhanced viewing tools and the ability to augment using real-time operational and sensory data. “This cutting-edge, proven technology will future-proof the airport, setting a new standard for the global aviation industry to follow,” she says. „

The digital solution is a multi-million pound investment by LCY featuring 360° HD cameras and sensors on a newly constructed tower.

The system works via a live feed with a panoramic view of the airfield, along with sensory and operational data that will be sent via super-fast, secure fibre connections to a new NATS control room in Swanwick, Hampshire. NATS believes the solution will provide significant benefits and efficiencies for the airport.

From Swanwick, air traffic controllers will perform their operational role, using the live footage displayed on 14 HD screens that form a seamless panoramic moving image, alongside the audio feed from the airfield, and radar readings from the skies above London, to instruct aircraft and oversee movements.

The digital tower will be an entirely new facility, eliminating all age-related issues with the existing tower, assures Beeching. “Some ATC assets will be located offsite at Swanwick, offering improved operational resilience, while digital images enable integration with other data sources to improve efficiency and safety.”

In particular, she explains that the sophisticated tools of a digital set-up significantly improve a controller’s situational awareness, enabling quick and informed decisions that will help maintain speedy turnaround times and efficient movements on the ground – critical for regional airlines that use the airport.

“There is a lot of interest in this technology from other airports. However, London City’s need is the most pressing due to the condition of the existing tower,” Beeching stresses.

Back in May, Mike Stoller, Director, Airports at NATS, said: “Digital towers are going to transform the way air traffic services are provided at airports by providing real safety, operational and efficiency benefits, and we are delighted that London City Airport has chosen to work with us to deliver what will be the first of its kind in the UK.”

LCY has been firm in addressing industry concerns regarding safety oversight [or the lack of] with the use of remote towers and the belief that air traffic controllers will be replaced by technology altogether. Beeching says this is cutting-edge and proven technology that has completed 10 years of R&D and live trials. “Testing and proving the operational readiness of the tower will be undertaken robustly over a period of approximately 15 months, during which time the existing ATC tower will remain in operation.” >>

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