NATS trial how Artificial Intelligence can help cut delays at Heathrow Airport

National Air Traffic Services (NATS) is running trials to and researching into how Artificial intelligence (AI), to see if it could be used to help reduce flight delays at Heathrow Airport.

The project is now taking place within NATS’ bespoke digital tower laboratory at Heathrow Airport, where they test a combination of ultra-high-definition 4K cameras along with state-of-the-art AI and machine learning technology.

Heathrow’s control tower is the highest in the UK at 87-meters, providing commanding views of the airport and surrounding landscape. This causes problems for controllers when the tower is lost in low clouds—even when the runways below are clear—because they rely on radar to know when aircraft arrive and leave the runway. This takes longer between each landing to ensure safety and the result is a 20% loss of landing capacity, which creates delays for passengers and disrupts the entire operation.

Andy Taylor, chief solution officer at NATS, said: “Safety is always our top priority and AI is about supporting air traffic controllers. 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. I am convinced that this technology can totally revolutionize how air traffic is managed at airports around the world.”

NATS is deploying 20 ultra-HD cameras at the airfield. This is streamed into an AI platform called Aimee, developed by the Canada-based Searidge Technologies. Aimee platform can interpret the images, track the aircraft and inform the controller when it has successfully cleared the runway. The controller then makes the decision to clear the next arrival.

Kathryn Leahy, director of operations at Heathrow Airport, said: “Our capacity challenges are unique to our operation and we’re always exploring new techniques to help overcome these constraints and improve passenger experience in a safe and resilient manner. We’ll be keeping a close eye on this trial, as the technology could have a major role as we prepare for the expanded airport. We will watch how AI and digital towers could be used to monitor all three of the expanded airport’s runways in future.”

Non-operational trials are now underway in efforts to introduce the technology into service as early as this year. Between now and March, Aimee will study the behaviour of more than 50,000 arriving aircraft, which will ensure the accuracy of the system and project findings will be presented to the Civil Aviation Authority. The same technology might also be used to one day control the airport’s third runway.

Liz Sugg, aviation minister, said: “The UK’s aviation sector is a world leader, connecting passengers to destinations around the globe through a brilliant service. I’m determined that this sector continues to drive up standards and investing in innovative technology is good news for passengers and good news for airlines, helping improve journeys and customer satisfaction.”

The trial is part of a £2.5 million investment NATS made in a ‘digital tower laboratory’ located inside the Heathrow control tower. As well as at Heathrow, NATS and Searidge are working with Changi Airport in Singapore to create the world’s first ‘smart tower’ prototype. Operational trials are planned to start there in late January.