New technology to cut delays installed at Heathrow

Artificial intelligence (AI) technology which could cut flight delays is being used at Heathrow airport.

The technology has been installed at the west London hub’s control tower to help air traffic controllers (ATCs) track aircraft when visibility is reduced.

The trial is being run by air traffic management service Nats and involves the use of ultra high-definition 4K cameras, AI and machine learning technology.

Heathrow has the highest airport control tower in the UK at 87 metres, but this means it can be surrounded by low cloud even when the runways are clear.

In these conditions, controllers rely on radar to know if an arriving aircraft has cleared the runway.

This means extra time must be given between each landing, resulting in a 20% loss of arrivals capacity, and subsequent delays.

Nats has deployed 20 ultra high-definition cameras at the airfield, which feed their footage into an AI system which is learning to interpret the images and track aircraft.

This informs a controller when an aircraft has cleared the runway, reducing their workload and making it easier to decide when to give permission for the next arrival to land.

Nats believes the system will help the airport reclaim all the lost capacity from the tower being in low visibility.

It is believed the technology will be particularly useful at night, as the highly sensitive cameras will enable controllers to see the airfield as if it was dusk rather than complete darkness.

Digital technology at Heathrow
The trial involves the use of ultra high-definition 4K cameras, AI and machine learning technology (Steve Parsons/PA)

A non-operational trial is under way to study the movements of more than 50,000 inbound flights in the coming weeks.

The findings will be presented to the Civil Aviation Authority and the system could be brought into full use later this year.

Nats chief solution officer Andy Taylor claimed Heathrow’s ATCs have reached “the extent of human performance” and need technology to improve their efficiency and safety.

“It’s man and machine working in perfect harmony,” he said.

“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.”

Digital technology at Heathrow
Officials say the technology will be particularly useful at night (Steve Parsons/PA)

The trial is part of a £2.5 million investment by Nats in a digital tower laboratory located inside Heathrow’s tower.

Kathryn Leahy, Heathrow’s director of airport operations, said there are typically around 12 low visibility days a year when the tower is surrounded by clouds.

“We need to be a lot more resilient,” she said.

“When we’ve got low visibility in the morning and we’re being regulated by Nats from an air traffic control point of view, that then knocks on to the next wave of aircraft that are due to depart.

“You see that knock-on effect through the day.”

Ms Leahy added that the new technology could prevent the need for a second tower to be built with the opening of a third runway.

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