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Digital control tower could reduce Heathrow's £17bn third runway cost


Time and money could be saved on construction of Heathrow’s third runway, through the implementation of artificial intelligence (AI) and a digital control tower, it has been claimed.

Air traffic management company Nats is trialling a digital control tower at Heathrow. It combes ultra-high definition 4K cameras with AI and machine learning technology, and is designed to help improve the airport’s landing capacity at times of low visibility, while improving punctuality.

If the trial is successful the digital control tower would eliminate the need to erect a second physical control tower at Heathrow, as originally outlined in the airport’s  £17bn expansion plan. 

Heathrow has confirmed that the digital control tower, which displays a 180° live view of the airport from 20 zoomable cameras on a panorama of nine screens, may help it to reduce expansion costs by demonstrating that there would be no need for a second control tower to support extra traffic from the proposed third runway.

The trial is part of a £2.5M investment Nats has made in a “digital tower laboratory” located inside the Heathrow control tower. 

Nats chief solution officer Andy Taylor said: “Safety is always our top priority and AI is about supporting air traffic controllers. While they remain the decision makers at the heart of the operation, we can use it to provide new tools that help them make the best possible decisions and improve efficiency and safety.

“Right now, we are focusing on when the control tower is in low cloud, where I am 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.”

Heathrow Airport operations Kathryn Leahy added: “Our capacity challenges are unique to our operation and we’re always exploring new and innovative techniques to help us overcome these constraints and improve the passenger experience in a safe and resilient manner.

“We’ll be keeping a close eye on this trial, as the technology could have a major role as we prepare for the expanded airport. We will watch how AI and digital towers could be used to monitor all three of the expanded airport’s runways in future.”

From now until March, the behaviour of more than 50,000 arriving aircraft is set to be studied to ensure the accuracy of the system. Project findings will then be presented to the Civil Aviation Authority.

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