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NATS trials AI at Heathrow to cut delays

NATS is trialling an artificial intelligence system from Searidge Technologies at Heathrow to discover if it can improve the airport’s landing capacity in low-visibility conditions

NATS is trialling artificial intelligence (AI) technology to reclaim 20% of lost capacity caused by low cloud and reduced visibility from the control tower at Heathrow Airport.

The air traffic control service is testing a combination of ultra high definition (UHD) 4K cameras, along with AI and machine learning technology, at its “digital tower laboratory” to find out if the system could be used to help improve the airport’s landing capacity in times of low visibility.

NATS chief solution officer Andy Taylor 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.”

At 87m tall, Heathrow’s control tower can disappear into low cloud, even when the runways below are clear.

In those conditions, where air traffic controllers have to rely on radar to know if an arriving aircraft has left the runway, NATS said extra time was given between each landing to ensure safety. The result is a 20% loss of landing capacity, which creates delays for passengers and knock-on disruption.

“I am convinced that this technology can totally revolutionise how air traffic is managed at airports around the world”
Andy Taylor, NATS

In the trial, NATS is using 20 UHD cameras around the airfield. The views from those feed an AI platform, called Aimee, which was developed by Searidge Technologies, based in Ontario, Canada.

Aimee is described as an “advanced neural network framework” developed for its remote tower technology. The framework comprises four functions: computer vision processing; natural language processing; flight data/surveillance processing and analysis; and weather processing.

The Aimee platform can interpret the images captured by the cameras, track the aircraft and then inform the controller when it has cleared the runway, said NATS. The controller then makes the decision to clear the next arrival landing.

From now until March, Aimee will study the behaviour of more than 50,000 arriving aircraft. The project findings will then be presented to the Civil Aviation Authority. 

The same technology might also be used to one day control the airport’s 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.

Kathryn Leahy, director of operations at Heathrow Airport, said: “We’re delighted to be working with NATS to bring this pioneering technology to the UK’s only hub airport. 

Digital laboratory in Heathrow’s control tower

“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.”

Liz Sugg, minister for aviation at the Department for Transport, added: “The UK’s aviation sector is a world leader, connecting passengers to destinations around the globe through a brilliant service.

“I’m determined that this sector continues to drive up standards, and investing in innovative technology is good news for passengers and good news for airlines, helping improve journeys and customer satisfaction.”

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