NATS trials Searidge AI for tower-in-cloud solution

24 January 2019
The NATS Digital Tower Laboratory at Heathrow includes A-SMGCS and multilateration displays (foreground) with a video wall showing a live view of runway operations (pictured is Runway 09L/27R). Source: IHS Markit/Ben Vogel

NATS is using the AIMEE artificial intelligence (AI) software from Searidge Technologies, in a trial solution for ‘tower-in-cloud’ problems at Heathrow Airport.

AIMEE is assessing live data from about 50,000 arrivals at Heathrow until March 2019. The results will be evaluated by the UK Civil Aviation Authority before the next steps are decided.

In particular, AIMEE is being trialled for hold line surveillance. Searidge installed two pan-tilt-zoom cameras adjacent to a particularly busy hold line to collect data on every type of aircraft at Heathrow. In addition, 18 ultra HD 4K Sony cameras (capturing 25 frames per second) are installed on either side of the tower.

AI is trained to recognise when an aircraft has vacated the runway. Having detected a clearance, an AI algorithm relays the information to the controller without having to show any video, or receive a visual check from the control tower.

The tower at capacity-constrained Heathrow is so tall (87 m) that the out-of-window view for controllers is occasionally obscured by cloud or fog, even when visibility is clear on the airport surface. Today, Heathrow experiences a 20–25% drop in capacity in these conditions, which occur 12–15 times per year with an average duration of 90 minutes, but NATS and Searidge believe that AI-enhanced information could enable full-capacity operations at the busiest dual-runway airport in the world.

The tower-in-cloud trial is the first to be conducted in the GBP2.5 million (USD3.2 million) NATS Digital Tower Laboratory, located inside the control tower at Heathrow. “This is the world’s first 4k ultra HD digital tower facility,” said NATS Chief Solutions Officer Andy Taylor.

The laboratory includes a video wall and two workstations that each combine the functions of a runway controller and ground controller, by integrating A-SMGCS and multilateration data feeds. Colour-coded tags on the video wall – brown for arrivals, blue for departures – display call signs, the aircraft type and the destination stand (for arrivals at Heathrow).

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