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London City becomes first major airport with remote air traffic control

The Independent logo The Independent 30/04/2021 Simon Calder
a airplane that is parked on the side of a fence © Provided by The Independent

After two years of testing revolutionary new systems, London City has become the first major airport in Britain without a staffed air-traffic control tower.

Pilots using the Docklands airport in east London this summer will be directed by air-traffic controllers based 80 miles away at Swanwick in rural Hampshire – headquarters for the air-navigation provider, Nats.

A 165-foot digital control tower has been built on top of a long-stay car park adjacent to the runway. It is fitted with 14 high-definition cameras and two ultra-powerful zoom cameras, which can magnify images up to 30 times for close inspection.

The feeds are transmitted through what are described as “independent secure fibre networks”.

A dedicated team of controllers use live pictures, an audio feed from the airfield and radar information to instruct aircraft movements in and out of the airport. When overlaid with digital data, controllers can get an “enhanced reality” view of the airfield.

The project cost around £20m. The first flight operated from the digital was a British Airways departure to Frankfurt on 24 January.


Video: London City becomes world’s first major airport with remote air traffic control (PA Media)

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Juliet Kennedy, operations director at Nats, said: “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. 

“Digital tower technology tears up a blueprint that’s remained largely 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.”

The airport’s chief operating officer, Alison FitzGerald, said: “We are immensely proud to become the first major international airport to adopt this pioneering technology. 

“This investment in smart infrastructure will help us meet future growth in passenger demand, improve air traffic management and give us enhanced capability as aviation bounces back from the pandemic.”

On the day the announcement was made, London City airport had eight scheduled departures and 10 arrivals. At the time the project was initiated, there were 15 times as many movements.

The technology, by Saab Digital Air Traffic Solutions, is already in use at two remote airports in Sweden.

Magnus Lewis-Olsson, chairman and president of Saab UK, said: “This is an important milestone for Saab in the implementation of remote air traffic solutions at major civil aerospace hubs with dense traffic in a complex airspace.”

In 2016 the Irish Aviation Authority trialled the concept, with aircraft at Cork and Shannon handled by controllers in Dublin.

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