London City becomes first major hub operated by remote digital tower

Following extensive testing, the new facility is set to control all air traffic scheduled this summer

London City Airport has become the first major international hub to be fully controlled by a remote digital air traffic tower, following trials during lockdown.

All flights on the summer schedule will be guided by controllers based at NATS’ centre in Swanwick, which is 115km away from the business district.

The ‘enhanced reality’ view technology changes operations at the airport and is hoped to help meet the predicted surge in demand for travel when restrictions are lifted in May.

London City Airport
Photo London City Airport 

“This is the UK’s first major digital control tower and represents a significant technological and operational achievement, especially against the backdrop of COVID-19,” said Juliet Kennedy, operations director at NATS.

“Digital tower technology tears up a blueprint that’s remained largely unchanged for 100 years, allowing us to safely manage aircraft from almost anywhere, while providing our controllers with valuable new tools that would be impossible in a traditional control tower.”

Saab Digital Air Traffic Solutions pioneered the technology, which was successfully implemented at Ornskoldsvik and Sundsvall airports in Sweden.

A 360-degree view of the field is captured by the 16 high-definition cameras and sensors that are mounted to the mast. Controllers are then able to use this footage to instruct flights both landing and departing.

Within the control room in Swanwick, there are 14 HD screens which display the live feed. This can then be overlaid with digital data to create the ‘enhanced reality’ view. Information such as call signs, altitude and speed of aircraft, weather readings and the tracking of objects can be accessed.

Alison Fitzgerald, chief operating officer at London City, added: “This investment in smart infrastructure will help us meet future growth in passenger demand, improve air traffic management and give us enhanced capability as aviation bounces back from the pandemic.”

This marks a major milestone for the London hub and follows the completion of new aircraft stands and a full-length parallel taxiway which opened in December 2020.

Completed in 2019, the tower has undergone an extensive period of testing before becoming fully operational.

As the demand for travel increases, London City’s biggest customer, British Airways, will be introducing a new route to San Sebastian alongside other holiday destinations – including Ibiza, Mykonos and Santorini.