UK air traffic management service NATS is exploring whether artificial intelligence (AI) could be used to help reduce flight delays.
It’s thought that AI could help to reclaim the capacity lost during low cloud and reduced visibility from the control tower, improving punctuality.
In non-operational trials at its Digital Tower Laboratory at Heathrow Airport, NATS is testing whether a combination of ultra high-definition 4K cameras along with state-of-the-art AI and machine learning technology can be used to improve the airport’s landing capacity in times of low visibility.
Heathrow’s 87 metre tall control tower is the highest in the UK, giving a good view of the airport and surrounding landscape, but its height can also mean it disappears into low cloud, even when the runways below are clear.
In those conditions, controllers have to rely on radar to know if an arriving aircraft has left the runway. This means that extra time is given between each landing to ensure safety. The result is a 20% loss of landing capacity, which creates delays for passengers and knock-on disruption for flight operations.
To see if AI can plug this gap, NATS is deploying 20 ultra HD cameras at the airfield, the views from which are fed into an AI platform that can interpret the images, track the aircraft and then inform the controller when it has successfully cleared the runway.
The controller then makes the decision to clear the next arrival.
NATS believes that this system will help the airport reclaim all the lost capacity.
“Safety is always our top priority and AI is about supporting air traffic controllers,” commented Andy Taylor, chief solution officer at NATS. “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.”