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AI tech 'could cut Heathrow flight delays'

25 January 2019 09:14

Heathrow has the tallest airport control tower in the UK

Heathrow has the tallest airport control tower in the UK

New artificial intelligence (AI) technology aimed at cutting flight delays is being rolled out at London Heathrow.

The tech has been installed at the control tower at the London airport to help air traffic controllers (ATCs) track aircrafts during times of reduced visibility.

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

Highly sensitive cameras

Heathrow has the UK's highest airport control tower at 87 metres but it can still be surrounded by low cloud even when runways are clear, with controllers relying on radar in these conditions.

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 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.

A non-operational trial is under way to study the movements of more than 50,000 inbound flights in the coming weeks, with the findings then presented to the Civil Aviation Authority

Improve efficiency

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.

He said: "I am convinced that this technology can totally revolutionise how air traffic is managed at airports around the world. It's man and machine working in perfect harmony," he said.

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.

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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