London City has become the world's first remotely controlled airport

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At London City Airport, air traffic controllers have disappeared. Rising above the terminal building, the old control tower with its panoramic windows is deserted. City has quietly switched to a digital air traffic control center since the beginning of this year, being the first major international airport to do so, Reuters reports.

It is desired to improve efficiency and a possible future expansion, as the same number of controllers can cope with a greater number of aircraft movements due to the new technology that gives them more data than before. The planes are now taking off and landing, guided by air traffic controllers 144 miles away, in an office block in Swanwick, southwest London.

Located next to the former docks, a few miles east of the Canary Wharf financial district, the City is the smallest of London's airports. Prior to the pandemic, it served 5 million passengers a year, most of them passengers traveling on business to European destinations such as Frankfurt or Amsterdam.


London City has become the world's first remotely controlled airport.

"Not being at the airport, you don't have that smell of fuel when you get to work," said controller Lawrie McCurrach from his new base, "But fundamentally, the job hasn't changed. It's still about the controller who has to track the aircraft and visually monitor it. The difference is that we use screens instead of windows. ”

16 high-definition rooms and sensors capture a 360-degree view of City Airport. The images are transmitted via a very fast connection to the NATS Air Traffic Control Center in Swanwick. A dedicated team of controllers uses live images and an audio transmission from the aerodrome, as well as radar information, to guide pilots who want to take off or land.

The live feed, transmitted via independent secure fiber networks, is displayed on 14 HD screens in the Swanwick control room to provide a moving panoramic image. This can be superimposed with digital data to provide a picture of "augmented reality".

Information such as call signs, altitude and speed of all aircraft approaching and leaving the airport, weather readings and the ability to track moving objects can be included in this unique visual display. Panoramic zoom cameras can magnify images up to 30 times for close inspection.

Digital technology significantly improves controllers' awareness of the situation, enabling quick and informed decisions to improve operational safety and efficiency.

Photo source: Andrew Baker

The tower is provided with protection for the cameras, and each of them has a self-cleaning mechanism so as not to obscure the lenses. The images he shoots reach the new center, where they appear on 14 screens that together offer a panoramic view of the track. "If I lose contact with one of the rooms, there is always a reservation", said FitzGerald.

The live sound of the airport is introduced in the new control center, so that the controllers still hear the aircraft engines.

The new tower cost just under £ 20 million ($ 28 million) to be designed and built. "It benefits from safety and also from efficiency. It allows us to grow more efficiently. ”, said FitzGerald. "It's safer, in fact, what we're doing is giving air traffic controllers more data."

Once the flight schedule returns to normal after the pandemic, City will be able to manage 45 aircraft movements per hour, compared to 40 that operate in 2019.

The UK has banned most travel because of COVID-19, but is ready to allow people to fly again from May 17. The airport's plan for a remote control tower dates back to 2016. At the time, there was a £ 500m expansion plan to match the number of additional, larger aircraft, and significant investment would have been needed in the old airport. control.

Instead, it was decided to build a new tower, given the efficiency benefits offered by the new remote technology, a technology developed by the Swedish company Saab (SAABb.ST). The technology was initiated by Saab Digital Air Traffic Solutions, which successfully tested and tested the system at Örnsköldsvik and Sundsvall airports in Sweden.

Heathrow, the busiest airport in the UK, is considering remote control towers in its future plans.

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