One of the U.K.’s busiest airports is London’s Heathrow which sees millions of passengers come through its gates every year. Orchestrating security, arrival, departures, and delays 24/7 is a big task that requires meticulous attention. Airports seem to run under the guise that when things go wrong, the show must carry on. Even the slightest disruption can cause a massive delay or layover that leaves hundreds of passengers stranded.
The biggest hurdle Heathrow Airport faces is the challenging weather and the height of the control tower, which is often swallowed up by low hanging clouds resulting in delays. During bouts of poor weather, air traffic control must rely on radar to keep the airport running smoothly. Timing takeoffs and landings on the runway is paramount to ensuring the safety of everyone, so inclement weather can have a rather large impact on how things run. Due to these interruptions, approximately 20 percent of landings are delayed.
In an effort to solve this problem, the airport has invested in the development of a $3.26-million “digital library tower” that will envelop the control tower with ultra high-definition cameras and artificial intelligence (AI) technology. The AI will deliver clear views of the airport to traffic controllers when visibility is good, but more importantly, when it’s significantly compromised.
Kathryn Leahy, director of operations at Heathrow Airport, says, “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.”
If this technology becomes a success, the airport may be able to build a third runway without the addition of another traffic tower. Leahy says, “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 the future.”
Twenty ultra-HD 4K cameras were placed around the airfield and consistently feed information to the AI platform called AIMEE, developed by Searidge Technologies. AIMEE utilizes machine learning to interpret images, record aircraft, and notify controllers when it has left the runway. Leaving the controller open to signal the next plane for arrival on the cleared runway.
The U.K.’s National Air Traffic Services (NATS) is hopeful that the system will aid the airport in decreasing delays and disruptions. The technology also has the potential to reduce the budget for any expansion and offset costs to the airlines and passengers.