During WATMC, ATM Magazine spoke with Andy Taylor, Chief Solutions Officer from NATS about the need to focus on technology for the future.  Digital towers, artificial intelligence, intelligent approach and how we minimise environmental impact were all topics of exchange.

NATS is seeing that both ANSPs and airports are focused on the introduction of digital towers, with hybrid towers being an initial focus. One first step towards digitisation in the physical world is equipping ATCOs with the equivalent of a ‘heads-up display’ in the tower to share data from remote places in the airport. Today 70% of an ATCO's input is ‘out the window’, so this is a way to bring the two worlds together. This also allows ATCOs to be involved in determining the best way to bring the digital and physical together by including them in the design of future solutions and enhancing early acceptance. Automation tools also help with this integration.

NATS has been discussing the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in their media announcements for quite a while now and I would say they are a leading ANSP when it comes to use of this technology. Programs related to AI are accelerating again and are in use in the LHR Labs.  The focus is on reducing the workload of the ATCOs.  Think of this as the equivalent of a ‘smartphone for ATC’. This sounds like a real cool innovation to me and I look forward to hearing/seeing more on this program. 

Different geographies are approaching the use of cloud solutions at different levels with Asia showing high interest in this topic. When considering data sharing between the different silos within airports it’s not just about implementing technology and moving data to the cloud. The airports need to understand how all of this data sharing going to help them achieve their goals or it won’t succeed.

The intelligent approach programme has been working with a focus on arrivals and to develop a predictable safety margin. In order to drive further environmental improvements, we now need to integrate departures. Increasing predictability, decreasing taxi time and improving aircraft flow off the runway are all part of this discussion.

Let’s not forget unmanned traffic in this discussion. Regional airports are discussing the integration of drone hubs. The heads-up display mentioned earlier can help with the combination of ATM/UTM tracking and alerting. If this had already existed during the flight stoppage in the height of the pandemic, we could have increased drone flights near airports to test these concepts safely. These tower transformation programmes all support a future vision for UTM to fly in flexible unrestricted airspace.