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London City will be the first major airport to be fully controlled remotely

A digital control tower has been built at London City Airport, allowing flights to be guided to take-off and landing entirely with remote controls.

Air traffic controllers normally sit in a tower with panoramic windows overlooking the airport runway. However, with this digital control tower, the airport in London Docklands can be managed from approximately 80 miles away in an office building in Swanwick, Hampshire.

The new 50 meter high digital control tower is equipped with 16 HD cameras: 14 static cameras and two that can pan, tilt and zoom.

The turret has metal spikes on the top to keep birds away from the cameras and each camera has a self-cleaning mechanism to keep insects and debris from getting the lenses dirty. The project cost just under £ 20 million.

Live video, audio and radar data is forwarded to the base of air traffic control provider NATS, where it is displayed on 14 screens in a control room. The panoramic moving images can be overlaid with useful information such as aircraft call signs, altitude, speed and weather measurements.

This enhanced or enhanced reality display enables the same number of controllers to handle a greater number of aircraft movements. The airport will be able to handle 45 aircraft movements per hour, up from 40 in 2019.

The airport began plans for a digital tower in 2016 when it realized it would need to invest significantly in its old control tower to support larger aircraft as part of its extension of £ 500 million.

The remote tower technology was developed by Saab Digital Air Traffic Solutions and has been tested at remote airports in Sweden. Construction of the new tower was completed in 2019 and the silent switch to full remote control took place in January this year.

“This is the UK’s first major digital control tower and represents an important technological and operational achievement, especially against the backdrop of Covid-19,” said Juliet Kennedy, NATS Operations Director.

“Digital tower technology is tearing apart a blueprint that has remained largely unchanged for 100 years, allowing us to securely manage aircraft from almost anywhere and providing our controllers with valuable new tools that would be impossible in a traditional control tower.”

Alison FitzGerald, COO of London City, noted that the remote control aspect “ always raises an eyebrow ” on passengers, although not a cost-cutting measure:

“ This is not about removing air traffic controllers. It’s more about making it safer and more efficient. She added that in the future it might be possible to take off or land at the airport that would have previously been canceled or diverted due to poor visibility.

According to Jonathan Astill, NATS’s director of airports, access to information means that the digital system is “a better tool for telling aircraft apart” than the conventional method.

He added that the fiber optic link between London City and Swanwick is “resilient to cyber attacks” and “very difficult to hack”. If a link is lost, there is always a backup.

In the future, more airports could remotely adjust air traffic control, so the new London City setup will be followed with interest. Heathrow Airport CEO John Holland-Kaye told Reuters, “As we look at our remote control expansion plans.”