Manned air traffic control towers, a reassuring fixture at airports since the dawn of civil aviation nearly a century ago, could soon be made obsolete by technological advances allowing arrivals and departures to be monitored from miles away using live streams of high-definition video.
A 50-metre control tower is being built at London City airport but it will be populated by a suite of HD cameras instead of humans, as it vies to become the first major hub in the world to manage its traffic remotely.
From 2019, the controllers’ window over the Docklands’ skyline in east London will be a bank of HD screens, joined in a seamless panorama in a digital control room at Nats, the UK’s national air traffic control service, in Swanwick, Hampshire. They will monitor a live feed from 14 cameras at London City, 80 miles away – and for now, a week’s worth of recorded action shot from a crane before the tower is built.
The airport believes it will allow staff to monitor aircraft on the runway and track the skies better than before. The complete 360-degree view has been condensed into a 225-degree arc, meaning the controller can in effect have eyes in the back of their heads – even if they peruse what appears to be a banana-shaped runway. From this room, the controller can pan and zoom cameras for a detailed view, sharper than the binoculars of old.
Sitting in the air traffic controller’s chair in Swanwick, you get a piercingly clear, bird’s-eye view of the aircraft lining the runway and the waves lapping the docks by the Thames, as the sound of engines revving filters through.
But what has most enthused controllers is the Pokémon Go-style augmented reality that the system brings. Overlaid on the live video image, at the flick of a switch, is all the data that used to occupy several other screens or terminals. While staring out of the virtual window at an incoming plane, the controller can see all the identifying flight and radar information in the skies alongside it.
At night, the contours of the runway can be highlighted with graphics. In low light, visibility can be improved. And should cameras detect anything that is not authorised traffic – any four-pixel moving dot that could be anything from a passing helicopter to a drone – the system can automatically zoom in and track it, with a pop-up inset window on the video cityscape. Steve Anderson, head of transformation at Nats, said: “It’s heads-up, all the info is there while they are looking at the screens, everything they don’t have at the moment. That’s why it’s the future.”
The sounds of the airport are also played over speakers, to make this virtual world more realistic – potentially noisier, in fact, than some insulated control rooms – after trials showed it helped controllers. “It sounds a bit silly pumping noise into a control room but it’s something they need to do the job,” Anderson added.
The system has been developed by Swedish defence manufacturer Saab, using technology from its Gripen fighter jet. Digital control towers are so far only in operational use in two small airports in Sweden, with a third at Saab’s Linköping home to follow this year. Trials have taken place around the world, including in Ireland, the US and Australia.
Three separate , independent and secure super-fast fibre networks will transmit the images and data from City to Nats’ control room. The distance from Docklands to Swanwick is dwarfed by that of aircraft manoeuvres monitored in Australian tests: from Alice Springs to an Adelaide control room, 900 miles away, with less than a second’s delay in transmission, according to Saab.
Typically, the cost of constructing a traditional aircraft tower – in the tens of millions of pounds – as well as staffing it could be potentially prohibitive for smaller airfields. So is this it for the humans? For now, according to Stoller, there is no prospect of that. But he added: “At some point in the future, like any other business, we will look at efficiencies down the line.”
Controllers can expect to be retrained to work at more than one airport, Stoller said.