NATS to trial use of Artificial Intelligence at Heathrow Airport to cut delays

(Photo: NATS)

The air traffic management service, NATS has begun a trial to understand whether Artificial Intelligence (AI) could be used to help reduce flight delays.

A project is now underway, within NATS’ bespoke Digital Tower Laboratory, at Heathrow Airport to test whether a combination of ultra HD 4K cameras along with state-of-the-art AI and machine learning technology can be used to help improve the airport’s landing capacity in times of low visibility and improve punctuality.

Heathrow’s 285ft (87m)-tall control tower is the highest in the UK and provides commanding views 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, where the controllers have to rely on radar to know if an arriving aircraft has left the runway, extra time is given between each landing to ensure its safety. The result is a 20% loss of landing capacity, which creates delays for passengers and knock-on disruption for the rest of the operation.

NATS has deployed 20 ultra-high-definition cameras at strategic locations around the airfield, the views from which are then fed into an AI platform called AIMEE, developed by the Canada-based Searidge Technologies. The AIMEE platform 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 landing.

Non-operational trials are now underway to understand the feasibility of introducing the technology into service as early as this year. From now until March, AIMEE will study the behaviour of more than 50,000arriving aircraft to ensure the accuracy of the system. The project findings will then be presented to the Civil Aviation Authority. NATS said the same technology might also be used to one day control the airport’s third runway.