London City becomes first major airport to be fully remote controlled

Air traffic controllers normally sit in a tower with panoramic windows overlooking the airport runway. However, this digital control tower allows the London Docklands-based airfield to be managed from approximately 80 miles away in an office block in Swanwick, Hampshire.

The new 50m-tall digital control tower features 16 HD cameras: 14 static and two able to pan, tilt and zoom. The tower has metal spikes on top to keep birds away from the cameras and each camera has a self-cleaning mechanism to prevent insects and debris from making the lenses dirty. The project cost just under £20m.

Live video, audio and radar data are transmitted to the base of air traffic control provider NATS, where it is displayed across 14 screens in a control room. The panoramic moving images can be overlaid with useful information, such as aircraft call signs, altitude, speed and weather readings. This augmented or enhanced reality view allows the same number of controllers to deal with a larger number of plane movements. The airport will be able to handle 45 plane movements per hour, up from 40 in 2019.

The airport began planning for a digital tower in 2016, when it realised it would need to invest significantly in its old control tower to support larger planes as part of its £500m expansion. The remote tower technology was developed by Saab Digital Air Traffic Solutions and has been tested at remote airports in Sweden.

Construction of the new tower was completed in 2019 and the quiet switch to full remote control occurred in January of this year.

“This is the UK’s first major digital control tower and represents a significant technological and operational achievement, especially against the backdrop of Covid-19,” said Juliet Kennedy, operations director at NATS. “Digital tower technology tears up a blueprint that’s remained largely unchanged for 100 years, allowing us to safely manage aircraft from almost anywhere while providing our controllers with valuable new tools that would be impossible in a traditional control tower.”

London City COO Alison FitzGerald commented that the remote-control aspect “always raises an eyebrow” from passengers, although this is not a cost-cutting measure: “This isn’t about removing air traffic controllers. It’s more about making it safer and making it more efficient.”

She added that it could in future enable flights that would previously have been cancelled or diverted due to poor visibility to take off or land at the airport.

According to Jonathan Astill, airports director at NATS, access to information means the digital system is a “better tool to use in keeping aircraft apart” than the conventional method. He added that the fibre connection between London City and Swanwick is “resilient to cyber-attack” and “very difficult to hack into”. If a link is lost, there is always a back-up.

In future, more airports could adapt remote air traffic control, so London City’s new set-up will be watched with interest. Heathrow Airport CEO John Holland-Kaye told Reuters: “When we look at our expansion plans that includes remote control towers.”