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Location, Location, Re-location

London City Airport’s new digital ATC tower in Swanwick

Technology is playing a major role in shaping the way the aviation industry is tracking aircraft. This year we see the advancement in the testing of a remote digital air traffic control centre to replace the traditional air traffic control tower, which will be moved offsite away from the airport. We are also seeing satellite tracking systems that can transmit live data on aircraft, even in very remote locations and over deep water, with Malaysia Airlines being the first airline to use such a system.

Will the new satellite system that Malaysia Airlines has signed up for solve the problem of losing aircraft mid-flight? This service is provided by US-based Aireon, FlightAware and SITAONAIR as a flight tracking partnership. This new system will be able to give up-to-the-minute reporting of the location of the aircraft, even when flying over oceans and other isolated parts of the globe. This is all able to be done without having to install or upgrade the avionics or have any alterations of the aircraft.

The missing aircraft, Malaysia Airlines flight 370, was not transmitting a signal, either due to malfunction of the transmitter or the deliberate act by a crew member switching it off. This creates a debate into how the industry can eliminate the problem of the location transmitter from stopping to work. Should there be an alternative transmitter that acts as a backup in case of any malfunction and that cannot be switched off by human action?

The new satellite system must prove its place in the aviation industry and that it will be able to do what no other system has could do before, track real-time over deep water and polar regions. The new system has been signed up to start in 2018. So far, Malaysia Airlines is the only airline that has committed to this service. The industry is still unsure if this new technology would have made any difference in being able to locate the missing Malaysia Airlines aircraft.

If proven, this service can revolutionise the way we get real-time information on each individual aircraft, but only if the problem of the transmitter stopping to work is solved.

Another new technology is being implemented by City Airport in London, a remote air traffic control centre, will be this first in the UK to use such technology, developed by Saab Digital Air Traffic Solutions, a joint venture of Saab and the Swedish Air Navigation Service provider (LFV). In 2018 the testing period will begin with an ambition of being fully operational in 2019. Gone will be the days of air traffic controllers sitting in a tower overlooking the airport through their binoculars. This new eye on the runway will be 14 high-definition cameras giving a 360-degree view of all aspects of the airfield through a live feed to an operating centre located in Swanwick, Hampshire.

Safety is a key issue, both cyber security and the ability not to be able to fall back on the traditional practice of people physically looking over the runway in air traffic control towers located at the airport. London City Airport CEO, Declan Collier, expresses his complete confidence: "We are very confident that the systems we're putting in place here are secure, they're safe, they're managed very well. He also stated: "We use the highest level of cyber security in order to protect our systems."

Another landmark, soon to disappear from the London skyline

Yes, confidence is key to ensuring that no complacency is taken, but as cyber threats are increasingly changing how they can manipulate and create total havoc on our everyday lives, confidence and any electronic systems can become vulnerable to being compromised by either a cyber threat or even a basic electronic failure. For this reason, having a remote air traffic control centre will leave any airport open to a potential air traffic catastrophe.

If airports around the world choose to move completely away from the traditional tower to this new digital control system, what happens when the system fails? Are these airports going to be able to step in and utilise the old towers? Are the traditional skills going to be lost to the new digital skills? A discussion is needed in the aviation industry so that any vulnerability is mitigated and complete confidence is not relying on a single technological advancement.

Both technologies will work together to help better the flightpaths of the aircraft. However, the airline industry must not get fully excited that it loses focus on safety by relying on one single tool. We should work at building multiple tools that complement each other with the overall focus of being able to offer an overall better service.

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