NATS Artificial Intelligence Heathrow

NATS trials Artifical Intelligence solution for Air Traffic Control at Heathrow

In a move aimed at boosting punctuality at Heathrow, NATS is trialling an Artificial Intelligence solution that could help reclaim the 20% of capacity lost by low cloud reducing visibility from the Control Tower. 

A project is underway, within NATS’ bespoke Digital Tower Laboratory, at Heathrow Airport to test whether a combination of ultra HD 4K cameras along with AI and machine learning technology can be used to help improve the airport’s landing capacity in times of low visibility and improve punctuality.

Heathrow’s 87 metre tall control tower is the highest in the UK and provides commanding views of the airport and surrounding landscape, but its height can also mean it disappears into low cloud, even when the runways below are clear.  In those conditions, extra time is given between each landing to ensure its safety. The result is a 20% loss of landing capacity, which creates delays for passengers and knock-on disruption for the rest of the operation.

NATS is deploying 20 ultra high-definition cameras at the airfield, the views from which are then fed into an AI platform. The platform can interpret the images, track the aircraft and then inform the controller when it has successfully cleared the runway. NATS believes the system will help the airport reclaim all the lost capacity.

Andy Taylor, NATS Chief Solution Officer, said,

Safety is always our top priority and Artificial Intelligence is about supporting air traffic controllers. While they remain the decision makers at the heart of the operation, we can help them make the best possible decisions and improve efficiency and safety.

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.

The trial is part of a £2.5 million investment NATS has made in a ‘digital tower laboratory’ located inside the Heathrow control tower. There, it is working with the airport to understand how technology could support the air traffic operation now and in the future.

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. 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.