Low Cost & Regional

How London City Airport’s first digital air traffic control tower will transform its future

London City Airport will introduce the UK’s first digital air traffic control in 2020. Keith Mwanalushi learns how digital tower solutions will transform the airport’s future.

The latest trend in Air Traffic Control (ATC) technology is the movement towards remote tower services. Clearly, new technologies open up new opportunities that could cut costs, and in some markets like India, possibly overcome labour shortages.

In the UK, London City Airport (LCY) announced in May 2017 that it will build and operate a digital air traffic control tower, with a multi-million-pound investment in the technology.

“The current control tower is 30 years old and needs significant remedial work to remain operational,” Charlotte Beeching, head of communications at London City Airport tells Low Cost & Regional Airline Business.

NATS, the UK’s provider of air traffic control services, endorsed the decision to replace the existing 30-year-old control tower with a digital equivalent, developed by Saab Digital Air Traffic Solutions.

Rather than continually patching up the old tower, Beeching states it will be replaced with a digital solution, as recommended by NATS, which provides several advantages over a traditional tower, including significantly enhanced viewing tools and the ability to augment using real-time operational and sensory data.

“This cutting-edge, proven technology will future-proof the airport, setting a new standard for the global aviation industry to follow,” she says. The digital solution is a multi-million pound investment by LCY featuring 360° HD cameras and sensors on a newly constructed tower.

The system works via a live feed with a panoramic view of the airfield, along with sensory and operational data that will be sent via super-fast, secure fibre connections to a new NATS control room in Swanwick, Hampshire. NATS believe the solution will provide significant benefits and efficiencies for the airport.

From Swanwick, air traffic controllers will perform their operational role, using the live footage displayed on 14 HD screens that form a seamless panoramic moving image, alongside the audio feed from the airfield, and radar readings from the skies above London, to instruct aircraft and oversee movements.

The digital tower will be an entirely new facility, eliminating all age-related issues with the existing tower, assures Beeching. “Some ATC assets will be located offsite at Swanwick, offering improved operational resilience, while digital images enable integration with other data sources to improve efficiency and safety.”

From Swanwick, air traffic controllers will use the live footage displayed on 14HD screens

In particular, she explains that the sophisticated tools of a digital set-up significantly improve a controller’s situational awareness, enabling quick and informed decisions that will help maintain speedy turnaround times and efficient movements on the ground – critical for regional airlines that use the airport.

“There is a lot of interest in this technology from other airports, however, London City’s need is the most pressing due to the condition of the existing tower,” Beeching stresses.

Back in May, Mike Stoller, director, airports at NATS, said: “Digital towers are going to transform the way air traffic services are provided at airports by providing real safety, operational and efficiency benefits, and we are delighted that London City Airport has chosen to work with us to deliver what will be the first of its kind in the UK.”

LCY has been firm in addressing industry concerns regarding safety oversight [or the lack of] with the use of remote towers and the belief that air traffic controllers will be replaced by technology altogether.

Beeching says this is cutting-edge and proven technology that has completed 10 years of R&D and live trials. “Testing and proving the operational readiness of the tower will be undertaken robustly over a period of approximately 15 months, during which time the existing ATC tower will remain in operation.”

She adds that, far from removing the human from the operation, a digital tower offers a whole host of viewing tools which will increase safety by helping to improve air traffic controllers’ situational awareness: “For example, object tracking, enhanced visuals, night vision and high definition zoom, with the ability to augment the images with other operational data.”

LCY emphasises that the number of controllers on duty at the airport will remain the same as the present-day operation, working closely with their NATS London radar team, who will be based in the same building, helping to foster closer working practices and understanding, which Beeching hopes will quicken and improve decision-making and cooperation.

Digital towers are catching on globally. The Indian aviation authorities are reportedly considering setting up remote control towers across the country. Two airports in Sweden – Sundsvall –Timrå and Örnsköldsvik – have recently installed a remote tower solution.

LCY is undergoing a £400 million development programme

There was a trial at Cork in Ireland, Budapest Airport is likely to go digital in the coming months, the French have signed a contract to digitise some of their towers; and trials are also starting in Italy, Germany and the US.

LCY has chosen to continue its relationship with NATS as its air traffic service provider for the next 10 years through a multi-million pound strategic partnership announced in November 2017.

NATS has been the airport’s air traffic services provider since it first opened in 1987, but with the airport on the cusp of a major redevelopment programme in its 30th anniversary year [2017], this is the first time the two companies have signed up to a decade long commitment.

As the airport celebrates its 30th anniversary, Beeching reports that the western departures pier has been refurbished and extended, creating a larger, modern, open-plan layout and introducing new retail, food and beverage outlets.

In addition, a first-class lounge and business lounge have opened within the facility’s jet centre building, offering lounge access to commercial passengers for the first time in the airport’s history. LCY is on the verge of a £400 million development programme, which will enable a further 30,000 flights per year.

The airport’s transformational redevelopment programme includes an extended passenger terminal, seven new aircraft stands to accommodate larger, next-generation aircraft, and a parallel taxiway to maximise runway capacity.

It is estimated that the project will create 2,100 new jobs and add an extra £750 million a year to the UK economy.

According to LCY, construction of the control tower is due to begin at the end of this year, with completion in 2018, followed by more than a year of rigorous testing and training, during which the existing 30-year-old tower will continue to operate.

The digital tower is then expected to enter operational service in early 2020. As things stand, it seems remote and digital towers could be a viable option for many regional airports.

Visit londoncityairport.com for more information.

Editor’s Note: The post was originally published in January 2018.

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