UK air traffic management service provider NATS has commenced a trial of an AI-powered digital control tower at Heathrow Airport to reduce flight delays.

NATS has invested £2.5m in a ‘digital tower laboratory’ at Heathrow to understand how technology could support the air traffic operation.

Featuring a suite of 20 ultra high definition (UHD) cameras and AI-powered technology, the digital tower will monitor aircraft and help the airport to regain 20% of lost capacity caused by low cloud and reduced visibility from the control tower.

Heathrow’s control tower is around 87m tall and can disappear into low cloud, even when the runways below are clear. The controllers have to therefore use radar to ensure safe landing and take off.

This process leads to a 20% decrease of landing capacity and causes delays for passengers, as well as knock-on disruption for the rest of the operation.

“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.”

The digital control tower is equipped with ultra high-definition cameras an AI platform Aimee and can interpret the images, track the aircraft and then inform the controller when the runway has been successfully cleared. The controller then approves landing of next aircraft.

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Aimee platform will study the behaviour of over 50,000 arriving aircraft to ensure the accuracy of the system, and the findings will be presented to the Civil Aviation Authority.

NATS chief solution officer Andy Taylor 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 use it to provide new tools that 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.”

NATS noted that the same technology might also be used to control the airport’s proposed third runway.

Aimee has been developed by Canada-based company Searidge Technologies.