This busy London airport is getting rid of its control tower

A reassuring sight for many plane passengers is that of the air traffic control tower, its highly trained occupants casting a watchful eye over the airport from up high, ensuring the security of the runways while organizing the movement of aircraft on the tarmac and in the immediate airspace.

So how do you like the idea of a control tower with no one in it?

That’s exactly what’s being planned for London’s City Airport, whose controllers will soon be sitting in a building in a small English village 70 miles away, conducting their important work via live-streams sent direct from the airport.

London City Airport will be the first in the United Kingdom to use the high-tech system when it begins trials in 2018. The setup, developed by Saab Digital Air Traffic Solutions, has already been tested in a number of countries, including Australia and Sweden.

The airport in London sits right alongside the River Thames, a short distance from the center of the city. Space, therefore, is extremely tight, so doing away with its physical tower will give the airport more options as it begins work on a major expansion program.

The technology will use 14 high-definition cameras to build a 360-degree view of the airport, with images sent via super-fast secure fiber connections to controllers at a new National Air Traffic Services (NATS) center in the Hampshire village of Swanwick.

The live-stream will provide a view of the airfield on huge displays “in a level of detail greater than the human eye and with new viewing tools that will modernize and improve air traffic management,” NATS says on its website. Controllers will be able to zoom in on any part of the airfield for a better view, and the system will even offer alerts when unidentified objects such as rogue drones are detected over or close to the airport. It also offers an enhanced view of the airfield at night or during bad weather, as well as live audio feeds to make the setup feel as real as possible.

Users of the technology can overlay data such as weather information, on-screen labels, radar data, and aircraft call signs, all geared toward improving a controller’s situational awareness, “enabling quick and informed decisions that thereby offer safety and operational benefits for the airport.”

While reading this, the word “security” has probably already popped into your head, possibly accompanied by warning signs and the sound of a klaxon. However, the airport insists the technology has been thoroughly stress-tested by independent security specialists, according to the BBC. For example, data will pass between the control center and the airport via three different routes, so if one goes down there will still be two others to work with.

London City Airport chief executive Declan Collier told the BBC he was “absolutely confident” that the system is able to withstand cyberattacks, adding, “No chief executive is complacent about threats from cybersecurity, but we are very confident that the systems we’re putting in place here are secure, they’re safe, they’re managed very well.”