London's Heathrow Tower Begins Testing Augmented Reality for ATC

New technology is expected to help reduce ATC delays.

London Heathrow ATC Tower
Augmented reality test will soon begin at Heathrow's digital tower laboratory.NATS photo

About 15 days each year, air traffic controllers working inside London Heathrow's 286-foot control tower experience essentially IFR conditions when low clouds surround the tower cab, often while ground visibility is just fine. ATC delays occur during these conditions because controllers cannot verify whether arrivals and departures have cleared the runway. The U.K.'s ATC provider, NATS, says those delays can reduce airport capacity by as much as 20 percent. Enter new technology capable of blending Heathrow's 4K digital equipment with ADS-B and radar systems thanks to data from 20 ultra HD cameras located just beneath the tower cab.

NATS recently agreed to participate in the trial of a new augmented reality technology at the organization’s digital tower laboratory located beneath the current control tower. The tower cab displays during the test will blend all necessary data to create unprecedented situational awareness for controllers. The testing technology will offer controllers customizable tags for aircraft and vehicles even if those vehicles are hidden by poor visibility or buildings on the airport. The airport’s 4K cameras reportedly provide better visibility around the airport at night than humans are capable of viewing with their eyes.

Sources at Heathrow claim this new augmented reality is already a step up in sophistication from the remote tower facilities already in operation at nearby London City Airport. If the test is successful, NATS hopes to roll out its first live airport test of an augmented reality facility at Singapore’s Changi Airport.