In just two years from now (2020), London City Airport will become the first in the UK to ground the tower, with the safety of all in-bound and out-bound flights being controlled by NATS – the UK’s leading provider of air traffic control services – all from its HQ almost 100 miles in Swanwick.
The firm, which has been given a 10-year contract by London City Airport, has created a digital control room using cameras, displays and audio equipment to provide a 360-degree view of the airport and air space remotely.
The controller still has the information they need to manage aircraft, but because the information is distributed over the network, there is no longer any need for the controller to be based at the airfield
“The equipment is the same as in a traditional tower; voice comms, flight data and navigation aids and so on,” explained Steve Anderson, head of airport transformation at NATS. “The only difference is that the view is provided by a series of cameras instead of windows.
He added: “On an airfield there are systems that controllers use to manage aircraft, such as radar, voice communications and landing aids, all of which are fed into the control tower across a local network. The controller uses this information, coupled with what can be seen out of the window, to make decisions and manage the flow of traffic. A digital tower simply takes all of that information, including the view, and digitises it.”
Imagine looking out of the window and seeing labels on the planes as they fly past, but in greater detail than the human eye can see from a tower
Safer and cheaper
NATS currently handles around 2.4 million flights and 250 million passengers in UK airspace every year.
Anderson told AVTE he believes the digital tower has the potential to provide many improvements to airport efficiencies as well as saving money and improving overall safety, when compared to the traditional physical tower and human presence.
"The controller still has the information they need to manage aircraft, but because the information is distributed over the network, there is no longer any need for the controller to be based at the airfield. Alternatively, we can use the same technology to augment what controllers see and provide them with more capability, but present it to them somewhere on the airfield.
“The system has zoom cameras, augmented heads up displays, consolidated information, radar and visual tracking and sound – so not only does it present the view that a controller needs, but it also displays the relevant data right up in front of them. Imagine looking out of the window and seeing labels on the planes as they fly past, but in greater detail than the human eye can see from a tower.”
He concluded: “The digital tower is often cheaper to build and maintain than a traditional tower; teams of controllers can be based at a centre instead of remote airfields, and the digitised data can be augmented and enhanced to give the controller more tools to manage flights, particularly at busy and complex airports.”