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Ron Alalouff is a journalist specialising in the fire and security markets, and a former editor of websites and magazines in the same fields.
July 20, 2017


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Case study

HD cameras to replace control tower in ground-breaking revamp at London City Airport

In what is believed to be a first for a UK airport, a remote monitoring system based on high definition video cameras is to replace the physical control tower at London City Airport.

The digital air traffic control tower will be operated some 100 miles from the airport at a new control room in Swanwick, Hampshire and will be managed by NATS, the air traffic control service.

High definition cameras

The system – developed by Saab Digital Air Traffic Solutions in conjunction with the Swedish air traffic control service, LFV – will consist of a new unmanned tower, at the top of which will be 14 high definition and two PTZ cameras.

The cameras will combine to provide a full 360-degree view of the airfield – just like that provided by a conventional tower – but at a level of detail greater than the human eye and with new viewing tools that, it’s claimed, will modernise and improve air traffic management.

The images will be viewed at a new facility which will resemble a modern CCTV control room at the NATS site in Swanwick, which also controls the skies over southern England. The control room will feature a curved video wall of screens, with images stitched together to provide a virtual, panoramic view of the airport.

The realism will be enhanced with an audio feed from the airfield and radar readings from the skies above London, to instruct aircraft and oversee movements.

Saab says it started developing the digital air traffic solution in response to the need to provide a more efficient way of handling air traffic control, particularly for smaller airports where air traffic control can account for 30-40% of operating costs.

The remote solution means that air traffic control costs can be shared, with a number of airports being managed simultaneously or according to demand at any particular time.

The first digital control tower was established at Örnsköldsvik airport in northern Sweden as recently as 2015, with Sundsvall airport being added later and a third airport, Linköping, up and running by summer 2017. The control room in Sundsvall features a large row of 55-inch screens showing a window-like panoramic view of each airport.

Difficult light conditions

The camera technology actually makes it easier for air traffic controllers to cope with difficult light conditions, such as direct sunlight or reflections from snow, so they can follow an aircraft that is climbing without being dazzled. Other types of data, such as weather and wind force, can be integrated into the same view on the screen, providing a more enhanced situational awareness.

Not only does the remote air traffic control system comply with existing regulations but it also enables the further enhancement of safety, according to Per Ahl, sales director at Saab Digital Air Traffic Solutions. This is because:

  • Cameras can provide better night vision
  • Advanced image processing can detect potential dangers such as equipment left on the airfield
  • Target tracking technology via radar and camera can detect and highlight incoming aircraft, making it easier for air traffic controllers to monitor them
  • Information overlaid on screen can display everything from weather and visibility to the identity of aircraft and vehicles.

The cameras also feature specially designed metal housings to prevent image interference on the lens from insects and small animals.

Enhanced situational awareness

The image viewing is combined with other systems which controllers use to manage air traffic, such as radar displays, navigation aids and information about flight plans.

“By combining LFV’s unique operational experience with Saab’s world class technology solutions, we can drive the whole process forward from planning to commissioning remote air traffic control,” said Johan Klintberg, CEO of Saab Digital Air Traffic Solutions.

“We offer smart digital solutions so that data can be used in several locations to streamline traffic flows around an airport, both in the air and on the ground. As we are pioneering digital air traffic management, the market has shown large interest in our products and services.”

Mike Stoller, Director of Airports at NATS, said: “Digital towers are going to transform the way air traffic services are provided at airports by providing real safety, operational and efficiency benefits. We are delighted that London City Airport has chosen to work with us to deliver what will be the first of its kind in the UK.”

High-rise cameras

The 50-metre camera tower – which will be located in the airport’s long-stay car park in line with the mid-way point of the runway – was approved by the London Borough of Newham in December 2016. Construction of the tower is due to be completed in 2018, followed by more than a year of testing and training, during which the existing tower will continue to operate. The digital tower will become fully operational in 2019.

London City Airport – which this year turns 30 years old – is also beginning a £350m development programme to help cater for an extra two million passengers a year by 2025. Facilities will include seven new aircraft stands to accommodate ‘next generation’ aircraft, a parallel taxiway to maximise runway capacity, and an extension to the passenger terminal.

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