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NATS testing Artificial Intelligence at Heathrow
Heathrow digital tower lab. © NATS

NATS testing Artificial Intelligence at Heathrow

UK air traffic management service provider NATS is evaluating the use of Artificial Intelligence to help reduce flight delays.

UK air traffic management service provider NATS has started a trial at Heathrow Airport to evaluate the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to help reduce flight delays.

A project is currently underway, within NATS’ bespoke Digital Tower Laboratory at Heathrow, to test whether a combination of ultra-HD 4K cameras along with state-of-the-art 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 87m 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, where the controllers have to rely on radar to know if an arriving aircraft has left the runway, extra time is 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 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 called Aimee, developed by a Canadian firm, Searidge Technologies. The Aimee platform can interpret the images, track the aircraft and then inform the controller when it has successfully cleared the runway. The controller then makes the decision to clear the next arrival.

NATS believes the system will help the airport reclaim all the lost capacity.

The non-operational trials currently underway will assess the feasibility of introducing the technology into service as early as this year. From now until March, Aimee will study the behaviour of more than 50,000 arriving aircraft to ensure the accuracy of the system. 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 £2.5 million investment NATS has made in its Digital Tower Laboratory 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.

As well as at Heathrow, NATS and Searidge are working with Changi Airport in Singapore to create the world’s first ‘smart tower’ prototype. Operational trials are planned to start there in late January.

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