Is AI the solution to Heathrow’s third runway?

Posted on 24 Jan 2019 by Maddy White

Artificial intelligence could be the answer to Heathrow’s third runway expansion, and this could boost British manufacturing.

A hi-tech AI solution is being trialled at a bespoke ‘Digital Tower Laboratory’ located inside the Heathrow control tower.

Heathrow's third runway 80 million passengers travelled through Heathrow in 2018 - image courtesy of NATS.
80 million passengers travelled through Heathrow in 2018 – image courtesy of NATS.

It forms part of a £2.5m investment to transform aviation from NATS – Britain’s leading provider of air traffic control services.

The project combines ultra HD 4K cameras with AI and machine learning technology, to be used to help improve the airport’s landing capacity in times of low visibility.

Heathrow’s 87 metre tall control tower is the highest in the UK, but its height can also mean it disappears into low cloud, even when the runways below are clear, according to NATS.

In those conditions, controllers have to rely on radar to know if an arriving aircraft has left the runway. This results in extra time given between each landing to ensure its safety, meaning at particularly bad visibility a 20% loss of landing capacity can be incurred, which creates delays for passengers and disrupts flight operations.

Aimee: The AI system

20 ultra high-definition cameras at the airfield are being deployed, the data collected from which is then fed into an AI platform, Aimee.

Heathrow's third runway The project combines ultra HD 4K cameras with AI - image courtesy of NATS.
The project combines ultra HD 4K cameras with AI – image courtesy of NATS.

The Aimee platform can interpret images captured, track the aircraft and then inform the controller when the runway has successfully been cleared.

The 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 learn the behaviour of more than 50,000 arriving aircraft to ensure the accuracy of the system.

Camera and video analytics adopted across sectors

The AI technology could be used to control the airport’s proposed third runway, say NATS.

The integration of advanced AI systems is increasingly being adopted across sectors, and aviation proves as another example of AI forming part of our everyday lives.

The concept of advanced cameras capturing images is already being deployed in manufacturing operations for quality control purposes and to optimise production lines. There are vast opportunities to leverage the data cameras capture.

In a previous interview, Brian Duffy, Edgeline lead for HPE, told TM the power of video analytics in the food industry. He said: “We’re using video analytics to assess cuts of meat coming down a production line. Algorithms are looking at the size and weight of each cut, detecting where the bone is to make the most efficient cut, and analysing the marbling, i.e. the balance of red and white.

“Some countries have different preferences, so by leveraging video analytics and AI, we can look at the colouration of a cut of meat and determine whether it’s optimised for country A or country B depending on the natural marbling of the meat.”

Heathrow’s third runway to boost Britain

A record 80 million passengers travelled through the UK’s airport in 2018, this up 2.7% on last year. According to the airport, Heathrow is one of only seven airports in the world to achieve this milestone.

Heathrow’s third runway could provide a massive economic boost to Britain, with more than 100,000 new UK jobs, and benefits of up to £74bn to passengers and the wider economy on the table. The expansion could increase passenger capacity to 130 million per year, a 62% increase.

It could enable access to new international routes which could encourage further trade; vital for the future of manufacturing and exports.

Chris Richards, head of business environment policy at EEF, previously said: “Heathrow is a global freight hub, providing significant freight capacity for Britain’s exporters right across the country.

“The dense global route connectivity from Heathrow ensures this freight capacity is provided in a cost effective way at a significant advantage for British based exporters.”

Though a report released yesterday, ‘Aircraft Noise’, published by the London Assembly Environment Committee, says noise nuisance levels are unacceptable and calls for a halt on all air traffic growth at Heathrow and London City airports. It adds air traffic at Heathrow and London City should not increase and Heathrow’s third runway should not go ahead.

Heathrow’s third runway could boost manufacturing and international trade routes. The artificially intelligent trials that use hi-tech cameras to capture, record and analyse data offer a much more digitally-led operation than current approaches. This technique is already being used across sectors including manufacturing, as AI increasingly becomes part of our everyday lives.

Though it is crucially important to examine its uses in different industries and understand how sectors can further capitalise on tech that will, in years ahead, only become more powerful.

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