London’s Heathrow Airport trials AI to manage flights

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by Mark Johnson
NATS tests AI at Heathrow

The UK’s air traffic management service, NATS has begun Heathrow trial to understand whether Artificial Intelligence (AI) could be used to help reduce flight delays.

NATS said the trial is part of a £2.5 million investment it’s made in a ‘digital tower laboratory’ located inside the Heathrow control tower. There, it is working with the airport to understand how technology could support the air traffic operation now and in the future.

The project at NATS’ bespoke Digital Tower Laboratory, at Heathrow Airport, is testing whether a combination of ultra HD 4K cameras along with state-of-the-art AI and machine learning technology can be used to help improve the airport’s landing capacity in times of low visibility and improve punctuality.

Heathrow keen to explore new AI innovations

“We’re delighted to be working with NATS to bring this pioneering technology to the UK’s only hub airport,” said Heathrow Airport’s Director of Operations, Kathryn Leahy. 

“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.”

Heathrow’s 87 metre tall control tower is the highest in the UK and provides commanding views of the airport and surrounding landscape, but its height can also mean it disappears into low cloud, even when the runways below are clear.

In those conditions, NATS said in a statement, where the controllers have to rely on radar to know if an arriving aircraft has left the runway, extra time is given between each landing to ensure its safety. The result is a 20% loss of landing capacity, which creates delays for passengers and knock-on disruption for the rest of the operation.

NATS is deploying 20 ultra high-definition cameras at the airfield, the views from which are then fed into an AI platform called Aimee, developed by the Canada-based Searidge Technologies. 

The Aimee platform can interpret the images, track the aircraft and then inform the controller when it has successfully cleared the runway. The controller then makes the decision to clear the next arrival.

“Safety is always our top priority and Artificial Intelligence is about supporting air traffic controllers,” said Andy Taylor, NATS Chief Solution Officer. 

“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.”