Move over, controller: Digital towers arrive in the UK
Monday, June 12, 2017
London City — the famous airport built in the heart of the former docklands in the UK capital — will become the first airport in the country to introduce a digital control tower, replacing binoculars with cameras and a control room almost 100 miles away.
Set to open in 2019, the digital tower will replicate a live, 360-degree view of the airport from a 50-meter high position adjacent to the runway midpoint, giving an unrivaled view of everything that goes on. HD cameras will instantly relay any movements of aircraft and ground vehicles (and any incidents) to the controllers who will work in the special control room at the National Air Traffic Services (NATS) centre in Swanwick, Hampshire, via a dedicated high-speed link.
Instead of removing the controller from the immersive experience of being located at the airport, the new camera system developed by Saab Digital Air Traffic Solutions will actually use technology to improve the ability to safely direct the flow of traffic at a level of detail much greater than the human eye can see.
"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," said Mike Stoller, Director, Airports at NATS.
Set to open in 2019, the digital tower will replicate a live, 360-degree view of the airport from a 50-meter high position. (Image: London City Airport)
The choice of location for the new technology is not necessarily important, although London City's 30-year-old tower is becoming less fit for purpose and the terminal beneath it is being expanded. However, the implications for airports around the world is huge.
En-route control centers are not a new thing. All over the world ATC radar control stations have been amalgamated into centralized locations that remotely monitor different areas of the sky across a particular country or region. In the UK, much of the airspace is also managed at Swanwick, while notable hubs in the U.S. include New York Center and Los Angeles Center.
With these first steps into digital towers, airports are likely to start thinking about ways to save costs on staff and infrastructure, and even how removing towers can create space for other revenue-earning potential at airports.
Manchester Airport spokesman Rad Taylor hinted to the Manchester Evening News that his airport — the third busiest in the country — could follow London City's lead in opening its own remote tower.
"It’s absolutely a possibility we will do this," Taylor said. "Technology is changing and improving all the time, and we are continually looking at new ways of managing our operations and improving the passengers experience."
In the case of Manchester, which is owned by the Manchester Airports Group (MAG), the potential is that ATC services for each of its airports (which also includes East Midlands, Bournemouth and London Stansted) could be run from a centralized location.
Airports in Sweden are already using the technology, which is particularly useful for remote airports with one or two daily flights where it's not feasible to base air traffic control staff.
Construction of the new tower at London City is due to commence later this year as part of the airport’s 30th anniversary celebrations, which has seen the city center experiment turn into a busy international airport.
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