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London City Airport goes digital

We've all seen movies with air traffic controllers hunched over their screens trying to help a stricken aircraft land safely. The drama builds as everyone looks out of the control tower windows as the plane comes in to view and banks sharply as it makes its final approach.....

All very dramatic but air traffic controllers sat in airport towers will soon be a thing of the past at London City Airport.

The only airport actually in London will become the first in the UK to install a digital air traffic control tower. The tower will be unmanned with the air traffic controllers sat 80 miles away in an office in Swanwick, Hampshire.

The controllers will receive information from sensors and 360° HD cameras built into the digital tower to guide aircraft in and out of the airport. The multi-million pound tower will be built by 2018 and become operational in 2019 after a year of testing.

What's on the tower?

The tower will relay information across a secure and super-fast fibre network from 14 HD cameras and two other highly manoeuvrable cameras. There will also be an audio feed and radar all of which combines to provide the air traffic controllers with far greater detail than can be discerned by the human eye and current technology.

Images from the 164ft tower will be displayed on 14 HD screens to provide a real time panoramic image of everything happening on the ground and in the air over the airport.

Despite the controllers being so far away from the actual airport the technology will provide them with more data and far more detailed imagery than they would have in a conventional control room.

Using advanced software they will be able to zoom in for close-ups and use the imagery from the tower to provide an augmented reality view of the airport offering far greater control than ever before.

The data, images and sounds will be transmitted from the airport's digital tower along three different cables. The cables will each take a separate route from the airport to Swanwick so that should one fail the other two will still be operational.

Not as scary as it seems

All this sounds very sci-fi and may make one or two uneasy that the movements of the aircraft they will be flying on will be decided by an air traffic controller who is essentially playing a giant computer game.

But, the new system is claimed to be a significant increase in safety as the airport looks to accommodate more passengers over the next decade.

Declan Collier, CEO at London City Airport, said: “A pioneering new digital air traffic control system will enhance safety and improve resilience, setting a new standard for the global aviation industry to follow.

“With London City Airport’s plans to grow and an existing tower which is reaching the end of its operational lifespan, this cutting edge proven technology future-proofs London City Airport’s air traffic control for the next 30 years and beyond.”

One thing which many passengers may be worried about, especially with the NHS recently getting hacked, is the issue of cyber-attacks. However, Mr Collier was quick to placate these fears. He told the BBC: "No chief executive is complacent about threats from cyber security.

"But we are very confident that the systems we're putting in place here are secure, they're safe, they're managed very well."

More passengers

The new digital tower forms part of a £350million programme of improvements to the airport which also include extending the current terminal building to cope with the two million extra passengers forecast to use the airport by 2025.

The programme of improvements will also feature seven new aircraft stands and a taxiway parallel to the runway to help increase the number of aircraft able to use the airport.

London City Airport has increased its passenger numbers year-on-year and in 2016 over 4.5million passengers passed through the terminal with 85,000 aircraft movements (aircraft either landing or taking off).

Although London City Airport will be the first in the UK with a digital control tower Ornskoldsvik Airport in Sweden has successfully used the system since 2015.

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