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Aviation: UK's first digital tower opens

The UK's first digital air traffic control centre has opened at Cranfield Airport in Bedfordshire. It is not yet fully operational, but following a period of parallel running and certification by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), service will transition from the conventional tower currently used at the airfield.

Cranfield Airport has opened a Digital Air Traffic Control Centre. (Cranfield University)

Saab Digital Air Traffic Solutions have supplied an innovative computer system that replicates what can be seen through the windows of a traditional air traffic control tower. It digitises and integrates airport functions giving controllers a single view, improving situational awareness and enabling quick and informed decision making. The technology provides controllers with a 360-degree view of the airfield fed by cameras mounted on a tall mast, along with the ability to zoom-in on aircraft. They masts have a much smaller footprint than a conventional tower and are cheaper. The control centre can be anywhere - even off site.

Are they safe?

The introduction of digital - often off-site - air traffic control centres to replace conventional towers has attracted a great deal of scepticism. Concerns frequently expressed include the risk of power failures, equipment faults - especially cameras, and hacking. The Aviation Oracle has already reviewed this new technology in some depth, and believes it offers a number of advantages over traditional towers where controllers view the airfield through windows. Among the are:

  • Camera masts (usually with 12-14 devices) can be built in locations that provide improved line of sight when compared to conventional towers.

  • The ability to overlay aircraft identities on the visual displays in digital centres means controllers spend less time looking down at flight strips and more time concentrating on the action taking place on the airfield.

  • Closed areas of airfields can be geo-fenced and shown on displays, reducing the risk of aircraft being instructed to manoeuvre into an area which is obstructed or under repair.

  • Cameras can zoom into areas when problems arise, offering an enhanced view to controllers.

  • Infrared imagery can be used to enhance night vision.

  • Software can generate an alert when there is the potential for a collision - just as already happens with aircraft under radar control.

  • Image recognition technology can identify small objects such as drones that might be operating in restricted areas.

Cranfield's digital control centre will enable controllers to monitor activity on the airfield using a bank of cameras and display screens. (Cranfield University)

The digital control centres will of course be protected with back-up power supplies and multiple private digital communications links. The latest computer hacking tools and techniques will also be deployed. Extra cameras and computer screens will be installed to ensure a full service can be provide should one component fail. Radar images have been transmitted from remote masts to en route air traffic centres for many years, and there have been no incidents related to hacking or power failures. It is fundamentally no no different when technology is used to transmit moving images from a camera mast to a remote digital control centre.

The future of air traffic

Digital towers have already been implemented at airports in other countries, notably Örnsköldsvik and Sundsvall in Sweden as well as Budapest in Hungary. The UK CAA has been working on detailed guidelines and regulations that will ensure the new technology provides a service that is at least as robust and reliable as anything that can be provided from a conventional tower. Digital aviation is cited as the next significant business transformation in the sector, one which will address efficiency, capacity and cost issues. Other airports in the UK are already working on projects, with Jersey and London City expected to complete implementations next year. It seems almost certain that remote digital towers will be considered at many more airfields when existing bricks-and-mortar facilities need to be replaced.

London City will be the first major UK airport with a digital tower. (NATS Services)

London City Airport is likely to become the first major airport in the UK to be run from a remote digital tower. Its air traffic controllers will be located at Swanwick, near Southampton, once the facility is completed and tested next year.

During the opening of the new centre at Cranfield Aviation Minister Liz Sugg, said: "Cranfield’s new control centre is a fantastic example of harnessing technology to improve the efficiency of flights." The Aviation Oracle tends to agree.

Text © The Aviation Oracle

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