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University airport operators to zoom in on distant planes in 'digital control tower'

Joseph Flaig

Stock image. The Cranfield University digital tower will give a panoramic view of the airfield, letting operators magnify images (Credit: iStock)
Stock image. The Cranfield University digital tower will give a panoramic view of the airfield, letting operators magnify images (Credit: iStock)

Distant incoming planes will quickly come into focus at an innovative digital control tower.

The facility, being built by Cranfield University and Saab, will let air traffic controllers “zoom in” on aircraft as they take off and land from the university’s airport.  

The technology will replicate the view seen through the windows of traditional control towers, with a live panoramic feed across the airfield using high-definition cameras and sensors. Unlike traditional towers, however, operators will also instantly magnify aircraft on their control screens, improving visibility across a 360o view of the airfield.

Saab and the university hope the digital control tower will “provide smarter approaches to air traffic control by digitising and integrating airport functions,” improving a controller’s situational awareness and enabling quick and informed decisions.

“The digital control tower will be a significant boost for Cranfield Airport and the research capabilities of the university,” said Sir Peter Gregson, vice-chancellor and chief executive of Cranfield University. “Combined with our existing and new facilities, the digital control tower will cement Cranfield’s place as the home of the leading aerospace research facilities in Europe.”

Örnsköldsvik and Sundsvall airports in Sweden became the first to be controlled by digital towers in 2015. There are no operating digital control towers in the UK, although Saab is also planning a similar facility at London City Airport, to open in 2019. The towers also offer augmented reality, overlaying aircraft information on the screens.

By automatically detecting and highlighting motion from hazards such as birds or unmanned aerial vehicles, digital towers can protect aircraft from serious safety risks, said Bill Read, deputy editor of the Royal Aeronautical Society’s Aerospace magazine.

“It puts a little box around it on your digital image and you can zoom in on that, then you can see what kind of threat you’ve got,” he told Professional Engineering. “So as far as situational awareness is concerned, it’s actually better than an ordinary control tower… because it has all these extra features.”

The confirmation of the digital control tower follows the official opening of the Aerospace Integration Research Centre at the university, and the announcement that a Digital Aviation Research and Technology Centre is being built at Cranfield.

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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