< Back to news listing

Member Company of the Month: NATS June 25, 2019

It’s an exciting transformative time for NATS from digital control towers to airspace modernisation. Tell us about trialling artificial intelligence at Heathrow Airport to cut delays. Why are you undertaking this trial and what are you hoping to achieve?

At Heathrow Airport, where the tower stands 87 metres above the taxiways, the tower itself can regularly become shrouded in low cloud – even while the visibility along the runways remain clear. In these conditions, the operation must revert to reduced visibility (ICAO Vis 2) procedures – known locally as ‘tower in cloud’.

These procedures immediately cut the landing rate by 20%. For any airport, this would create immediate challenges. But for one scheduled to near 98% capacity it’s especially disruptive. That’s where NATS and Searidge have been able to make a difference. Working with Heathrow, we’re using a distributed network of 4K cameras positioned at each of the runway exit points. These cameras to provide a view beneath the cloud with pinpoint accuracy.

But the real magic happens when Aimee gets involved. Aimee is Searidge’s AI assistant. By meticulously studying thousands of arrivals, she learns to recognise when all extremities of an aircraft have safely left the runway- protected area. Then, at exactly the right time, she alerts the controller who can clear the next arrival with confidence.

All this is possible within the existing tower. There’s no video wall or new operations room – Aimee integrates seamlessly with existing tower systems. Most importantly, the operation can win back that vital 20% of landing capacity.

The success of our organisation hinges on our ability to remain at the cutting edge of technology and innovation. 

Why is it important for NATS to keep up to date with emerging digital technologies?

The success of our organisation hinges on our ability to remain at the cutting edge of technology and innovation. The performance of our industry and our ability to manage Air Traffic Control and to remain competitive in this market relies on our research and horizon scanning ability. We are currently facing a period of unprecedented change which could impact our performance and productivity – our knowledge of emerging technologies and the skills required to successful embed this is therefore essential.

You are currently embarking on one of the biggest technological advances in air traffic management, earth orbiting satellites to monitor and manage flights in near real-time. Can you tell us more about this space-based revolution?

For the first time, air traffic controllers now have real-time data on the position of planes anywhere in the world, including previously un-surveilled airspace, using Aireon’s space-based Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) system.

Prior to Aireon’s system coming on-line, traditional ground-based surveillance covered just 30 percent of the globe, meaning civil aviation authorities, commercial carriers and related industry stakeholders relied upon position updates from aircraft every 10-14 minutes to track aircraft outside of radar coverage, not the real-time updates that the Aireon service provides.

The Aireon system is expected to reduce overall flight safety risks by approximately 76 percent in the North Atlantic. Improved visibility and control over previously un-surveilled airspace—especially across oceanic regions—will allow airlines to fly routes at optimal speeds and levels, plus reducing carbon dioxide emissions by two tonnes per flight. Use of the Aireon system over the Atlantic also allows for air traffic controllers to trial the reduction of aircraft in-trail separation distances from 40 nautical miles (nm) to just as little as 14nm, making the airspace more flexible, predictable and able to accommodate the immense growth predicted in the coming years.

Why did NATS decide to become a member of the DLF?

NATS is currently facing a period of immense change and transformation. The membership of the Digital Leadership Forum provides us with the opportunity not only to keep up to date with emerging trends it also provides a fantastic way to engage with organisations facing similar challenges.

The pace of change demands that the investment in staff development is fundamental to the achievement of successful modernisation.

What’s the value for NATS in being able to meet regularly with other industries?

Horizon scanning, benchmarking and networking is extremely valuable to our organisation. It is imperative that we stay current with our knowledge of the broader market place both in terms of emerging trends but also potential market opportunities.

Do you see learning and development as key to the success of modernisation of organisation?

The skills and capabilities of our workforce are the most important component in achieving success as an organisation. The pace of change demands that the investment in staff development is fundamental to the achievement of successful modernisation.

Are there any digital technologies you are especially keen to learn about?

The future change of airspace and air traffic management see us exploring and utilising AR and VR. We are keen to explore all options to ensure that our offer remains current and effective.

We’re looking forward to welcoming our NATS members to the forum over the coming year, thanks for your contributions at the sessions.




See all events