London City Airport this week became the first significant international airport where traffic is fully managed from a remote digital air traffic control tower. Landings and takeoffs are now overseen from the air traffic control center operated by air navigation service provider NATS at Swanwick on the south coast of England, which is 72 miles from the airport that lies in the heart of the UK capital’s financial district.
NATS controllers receive live video and audio feeds from the airport, with 16 high-definition cameras and sensors mounted on a 164-foot-high digital control tower providing a 360-degree view of the airfield. These feeds are relayed via secure fiber networks to the Swanwick facility, where they are displayed on 14 high-definition screens.
This technology was developed by Saab Digital Air Traffic Solutions, which has previously demonstrated its use at the far smaller Ornskoldsvik and Sundsvall airports in Sweden. Video images can be overlaid with digital data about real-time operations to provide controllers with a so-called "enhanced reality" perspective.
The combined visual display can include information such as call signs, altitude, and speed for aircraft approaching and departing London City, as well as weather readings and any tracked moving objects. The on-site cameras have a pan-tilt-zoom feature that allows controllers to magnify images up to 30 times for closer inspection.
London City's digital control tower was installed in 2019 and the remote control process has been extensively tested since then. The original air traffic control tower will now be redeveloped as part of the modernization program at the airport, which received more than five million passengers in 2019.
“This is the UK’s first major digital control tower and represents a significant technological and operational achievement, especially against the backdrop of Covid-19,” commented NATS operations director Juliet Kennedy. “Digital tower technology tears up a blueprint that’s remained unchanged for 100 years, allowing us to safely manage aircraft from almost anywhere while providing our controllers with valuable new tools that would be impossible in a traditional control tower.”
On April 29, new legislation came into effect in the UK to modernize the country’s airspace and tighten control on the illegal use of unmanned aircraft. The Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Act will support efforts by the Department for Transport to make improvements to the way airspace is controlled. The government has yet to publish a detailed plan and timeline for the improvements, which it says will reduce carbon emissions from air transport.
There have been several programs in the U.S. aimed at exploring the potential for remote tower air traffic control at airports, including Leesburg Executive in Virginia and Northern Colorado Regional in Loveland. In 2017, libertarian think tank the Reason Foundation published a study urging the federal government to take this approach to reduce costs associated with the FAA’s provision of air traffic management services.