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News: Heathrow trials digital ATC technology

Heathrow Airport and NATS (formerly National Air Traffic Services) are trialing new artificial intelligence (AI) software that may help to raise movement rates and improve flight punctuality during periods of low visibility. NATS believes the system will help the airport reclaim that lost capacity.

The project is underway in NATS’ Digital Tower Laboratory at Heathrow, and will test whether a combination of ultra HD 4K cameras and state-of-the-art AI and machine learning technology can be used to help improve the airport’s landing capacity. It is hoped the solution could be used when controllers in the conventional tower cannot see the entire airfield due to low cloud.

Currently the landing rate at LHR drops by approximately 20% when staff have to rely on radar to establish whether arriving aircraft have vacated the runways. NATS has deployed 20 ultra high-definition cameras on the airfield, the views from which are then fed into an AI platform named Aimee, developed by Canadain firm Searidge Technologies. The platform interprets the images, tracks the aircraft and informs the controller when it has cleared the runway. The controller can then clear the next arrival.

NATS Chief Solution Officer Andy Taylor said: "Safety is always our top priority and Artificial Intelligence is about supporting air traffic controllers. While they remain the decision makers at the heart of the operation, we can use it to provide new tools that help them make the best possible decisions and improve efficiency and safety.

"Right now we’re focusing on when the control tower is in low cloud, where I’m confident we can make a very positive difference, but I am convinced that this technology can totally revolutionise how air traffic is managed at airports around the world."

The same solutions might be used to control traffic on the airport’s third runway. Kathryn Leahy, Heathrow's Director of Operations added: "We’ll be keeping a close eye on this trial, as the technology could have a major role as we prepare for the expanded airport. We will watch how AI and digital towers could be used to monitor all three of the expanded airport’s runways in future."

The current trial is part of a £2.5m investment NATS has made in a digital tower laboratory located inside Heathrow's control tower.

Text © The Aviation Oracle. All pictures and video courtesy NATS.

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