Technology being trialled by air traffic controllers at Heathrow could mean the third runway is built without a new control tower, the airport said.
A £2.5m “digital tower laboratory”, which uses a suite of ultra high definition cameras and artificial intelligence to monitor aircraft, has been built in the base of Heathrow’s existing tower.
Developers hope it will help human controllers to land more planes during times of poor visibility, the most common factor behind disruption at Heathrow.
Heathrow said the laboratory, which displays a 180-degree live view of the airport from 20 zoomable cameras on a panorama of nine screens, could also demonstrate that there would be no need for a second tower. An additional tower was part of the infrastructure included in Heathrow’s original £17bn expansion plan, but the airport has been trying to reduce the budget.
The technology will allow air traffic controllers to land planes at normal intervals when the 87-metre high control tower is shrouded in fog or low cloud – which usually leaves them reliant on radar and slows traffic. A delay of 15-20 seconds per flight at the world’s busiest airportreduces its capacity by 20%, according to the air traffic management service, Nats.
Nats hopes the system, including artificial intelligence software to identify planes and monitor when they have cleared the runway, can be certified by aviation safety authorities within months.
Andy Taylor, chief solution officer at Nats, said the technology could “revolutionise how air traffic is managed at airports around the world”. He added: “We are at the limit of human performance and we need the technology to take us forward.” Controllers will be able to “handle more complexity and difficult situations – and more planes”.
He said there was no question of replacing human controllers: “It’s man and machine working in harmony.”
Taylor said Nats was improving the backup facility – located away from the airport – so it could operate to the same level as the control tower. Nats is also trialling a remote facility for London City airport using similar live feeds and augmented reality.
Kathryn Leahy, Heathrow’s director of operations, said: “We’re delighted to be hosting this technology – we need to be even more resilient. We normally have 10-12 days a year here when the tower is in cloud and we are forced to increase the spacing. In the summer peak, it could make or break a busy day.”
She added: “If the technology works we may not have to build a second tower to see the third runway. We will be really testing the capability.” Land has been safeguarded for a tower under current plans.
Nats and the Canadian software designers Searidge are planning to start operational trials of a similar system at Changi airport in Singapore later this month.