Heathrow is the world’s most capacity-constrained airport – delays and disruptions there caused by bad weather have a knock-on impact throughout the continent and beyond, so any improvement in the resilience of the airport during times of low visibility has a strategic value to the entire European network.
The airport is impacted by a lack of visibility 12 to 15 days of the year, when the top of the control tower disappears into low cloud, for example. Such events typically last for between 30 and 90 minutes; as Heathrow is working to about 99% of its capacity, that means an impacted hour will affect the schedule for the rest of the day. It also has a significant impact on the European network.
But AI could provide a surprisingly swift and significant uplift in the airport’s resilience performance.
UK air navigation service provider (ANSP) NATS has been working on an AI programme within a purpose built Digital Tower Laboratory (see box overleaf), located inside the Heathrow control tower, a 87-metre structure which provides commanding views of the airport and surrounding landscape but which can also disappear into low cloud, even when the runways below are clear.
The lab is transforming the picture that controllers have on critical airside areas of the airport, improving safety and capacity while reducing workload in fair weather and foul.
The programme comprises a network of ultra HD 4K cameras integrated within an AI and machine-learning platform called AIMEE, developed by Canada-based Searidge Technologies. Aircraft and ground vehicles equipped with transponders are tracked by airport surveillance radar (ASR) and GPS location data. Radar data is received from four different radar heads, to give a maximum coverage of the airfield, while further tracking data is available from multilateration position identification. At the heart of the platform is Searidge’s Hold-Line Surveillance System (HLSS), developed to ensure runway and taxiway operations can be safely monitored in International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) ‘VIS 2’ visibility conditions, when some or all of the manoeuvring area is no longer visible to controllers from the tower cab.
The enhanced view of the airfield area is displayed on a ninescreen video wall, each screen comprising a 55-inch ultra HD (4K) display, with ground vehicles and aircraft identified by real-time smooth labelling.
The AIMEE platform interprets the images, tracks the aircraft and then informs the controller when the aircraft has successfully cleared the runway and its associated protected areas. The controller then makes the decision on whether or not to clear the next arrival.