Virtual reality flying from London City in airport digitalisation breakthrough

London City Airport is to introduce the UK’s first digital air traffic control tower in a pioneering step for European aviation. As it celebrates its 30th anniversary of its opening and with its existing facility in need of an extensive upgrade, the airport in London’s docklands area will introduce a new digital air traffic control system which it claims will “enhance safety and improve resilience” and set “a new standard for the global aviation industry to follow”.

Working closely with the UK’s leading provider of air traffic control services, NATS, London City Airport has approved plans for a new tower, at the top of which will be 14 High Definition cameras and two pan-tilt-zoom cameras. The cameras will provide a full 360 degree view of the airfield in a level of detail greater than the human eye and with new viewing tools that will modernise and improve air traffic management.

The images of the airfield and data will be sent via independent and secure super-fast fibre networks to a brand new operations room at the NATS control centre in Swanwick, Hampshire. From Swanwick, air traffic controllers will perform their operational role, using the live footage displayed on 14 HD screens that form a seamless panoramic moving image, alongside the audio feed from the airfield, and radar readings from the skies above London, to instruct aircraft and oversee movements.


“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,” says Declan Collier, CEO at London City Airport.

“This cutting edge proven technology future-proofs London City Airport’s air traffic control for the next 30 years and beyond.” Declan Collier, CEO, London City Airport

Digital towers are going to transform the way air traffic services are provided at airports, providing real safety, operational and efficiency benefits. They are expected to be adopted particularly by smaller regional airports where significant cost savings will be able to be delivered without compromising safety.

The modern technology from Saab Digital Air Traffic Solutions, has been trialed and tested and is already in use at two remote airports in Örnsköldsvik and Sundsvall in northern Sweden. These airports, while much smaller than London City, have demonstrated some of the several advantages the system can offer for efficient air traffic management.

Other trials of unmanned towers have taken place in Australia. All the tests apparently show the tools of a digital set-up significantly improve a controller’s situational awareness, enabling quick and informed decisions that thereby offer safety and operational benefits for the airport.

For London City, controllers at Swanwick will be able to utilise a range of viewing tools such as high definition zoom and enhanced visuals, which provide detailed views of activity on the airfield, including close-up views of aircraft movements along the 1500m runway, with pan-tilt-zoom cameras that can magnify up to 30 times for close inspection.

They will also have real-time information, including operational and sensory data, to build an augmented reality live view of the airfield. For example, the ability to overlay the images with weather information, on-screen labels, radar data, aircraft call signs, or to track moving objects.

London City Airport is notably larger than the small regional airports the system has been tested at and Johan Klintberg, CEO of Saab Digital Air Traffic Solutions, says its decision to adopt the platform “demonstrates that it is scalable, bringing the benefits of digitalisation to airport operators, unconstrained by their size or location”.

The UK airport, which handles around 4.5 million annual passengers, is currently the busiest facility to commit to the digitalisation of the ATC function, but others are expected to follow. The idea of aircraft arrival, ground and departure movements at facility in one of the busiest ATM systems in Europe being controlled from a room around 70 miles away, may take some time to get used to, but it will in time become the norm, particularly at smaller airports with limited aircraft movements.

The system has actually been in development and testing for the past ten years and Saab Digital Air Traffic Solutions assures it is as secure as having staff on site in the tower with three private fibre connections between the tower and the control centre, one for normal operations and two backup links to keep the new system safe from hackers and other threats.

For the case of London City, the 50-metre digital tower was approved by the London Borough of Newham in December 2016, and construction will begin later this year, located in the airport’s long-stay car park, in line with the mid-way point of the runway, adjacent to King George V Dock.

Construction of the tower is due to be completed in 2018, followed by more than a year of rigorous testing and training, during which the existing 30-year old tower will continue to operate. The digital tower will become fully operational in 2019.