NATS delivers world-first in virtual control towers

Posted: 29 September 2009 | Des McKeon, Commercial Director, NATS Services Ltd | No comments yet

NATS has achieved a breakthrough in airport control contingency by putting into service the world’s first full safety certified back-up virtual operations room. The Virtual Contingency Facility (VCF) was developed following discussions with BAA and the airlines, who wanted to improve Heathrow’s resilience.

NATS has achieved a breakthrough in airport control contingency by putting into service the world’s first full safety certified back-up virtual operations room. The Virtual Contingency Facility (VCF) was developed following discussions with BAA and the airlines, who wanted to improve Heathrow’s resilience.

Passengers and airlines benefit because the VCF means the airport can now be kept open even if an emergency meant the main control tower could not be used, with delays and costs associated with such an occurrence significantly reduced.

This is a marked improvement in the contingency arrangements, which before the new control tower became operational would have delivered only around 10% of flights.

For the world’s busiest airport for international movements, keeping the flow rate as high as possible is crucial to its resilience and for protecting the service obligations of its customer airlines. For NATS, it was imperative that the new VCF would deliver these benefits.

Fog and low cloud can blot out the view of the airfield for controllers at the top of the 86m-high control tower. When this happens, they revert to low-visibility procedures, using radar, surveillance and communications tools to keep aircraft taking off, landing and moving safely around the airport.

These are the procedures used in the VCF, which is an exact replica of the main control room, a crucial detail to minimise any element of uncertainty from the watches which keep Heathrow moving, and allows the technology to generate a “working picture” of the airfield with which they are all too familiar.

Should there be a serious incident where the tower could not be used; the airport has a fall-back plan that ensures air traffic control delivers the best capacity possible, whatever the scenario.

NATS Services Ltd (NSL) took only 14 months to deliver the VCF for our customer, BAA. It is the first facility of its kind to receive official safety certification from a national regulator, in this case the Civil Aviation Authority. The project success means that the company is now ready to deliver the same vital emergency facility for any other airport in the world.

Our Chief Executive, Lawrence Hoskins, added some more detail: “We work alongside our customers and partners to maximise the value of their existing assets. Creation of new airport infrastructure is expensive and this is a cost-effective solution that delivers increased operational resilience for airline and passenger customers at the world’s busiest international airport.”

“From our position as solutions partner to many airports, we have observed that resilience is becoming a key issue for larger airports. The VCF provides a far more cost effective solution than building a secondary tower.”

“The VCF is an exact replica of the visual control room at the top of the control tower on the airport and is very familiar to the team. It seems hard to believe that they don’t need to see out of the window or even be on the airport to do their job, but when low cloud or fog descends and they can’t, they routinely switch to the procedures they will use in the VCF.”

The transition from blueprint to reality is a story linked to the ongoing evolution of Heathrow. For many years, a temporary base on top of terminal two provided the air traffic contingency at the airfield. This only had partial visibility of the southern runway and could handle only 12 flights an hour. Restricting take-off and landing to so few aircraft would have resulted in serious delays.

However, since the opening of the new control tower in June 2007, the old control tower outside terminal three had been the designated facility. While staff were familiar with its lay-out and would have delivered a much improved flow-rate, the building, which had been sold to BAA, was likely to be redeveloped. An efficient and cost-effective long-term option was needed. The expense ruled out building an auxiliary control room but began the process whereby the VCF was conceived, developed and delivered.

By May last year, the location for the VCF had been decided and BAA had given the project the go-ahead.

Head of Engineering Iain Harris gave an insight into the scale of what was achieved: “This was an enormously complex piece of work but the experience we can bring from the range of control room and tower projects we’ve carried out means we can solve any problems which come up well before transition.”

“There is nothing similar to the VCF on any other airport in the UK. We are ideally placed and have the expertise to deliver complex projects with regulatory approval.”

“We knew we needed a self-contained location off the airport that was close enough for controllers to reach quickly and one which had its own data links for navigation, communication, surveillance and information systems.”

“We always aim to provide our customers the complete package: commissioning, installation and safety assurance. If we can do it at Heathrow, we can do it anywhere.”

The company’s Engineering Projects Special Delivery Manager, Jez Ralph, highlighted the partnerships forged through the project with key suppliers like Park Air Systems, Sensis, Thales, Schmid, TAIT, TYCO and ATG.

BAA’s own engineers were also heavily involved, as its teams specialising in fibre and IT played a central role. Systems in use across NATS en route operation were installed by its engineers. These included DAVINCI, AMAN, CACC, CCDS and surveillance systems. BT were chosen to provide the communications links.

“Working closely with the tower team proved to be very positive. It was important that everyone who may find themselves in the VCF was comfortable with how it worked. To that end, our familiarisation sessions for both air traffic controllers and operational engineers were crucial. We were delighted with an attendance record of almost 100 percent,” said Jez.

He added that central to the success of the project was early engagement with the Civil Aviation Authority’s Safety Regulation Group (SRG) – the ultimate arbiter of whether or not the VCF would be granted its licence to operate and, in so doing, set a new benchmark as the first facility of its kind to be fit for purpose.

“We shared our progress with the SRG at every step and, in return, received their full support and assistance. What’s more we were able to exploit their feedback and involvement to deliver a better result overall.”

“Our own safety and human factors experts were also involved in the training and familiarisation programme – especially when it came to supporting controllers in their own acceptance of the facility.”

For the customer, Colin Wood, Heathrow Airport’s Airside Operations Director, was equally pleased with the outcome, saying: “This is a world first and an important element of Heathrow’s on-going modernisation. Passengers rightly expect a resilient airport and a smooth journey, and developments such as this will go some way to making every journey a better one.”

And with NSL – the commercial arm of NATS – extending its customer relationships in Hong Kong, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, the VCF is set to be an eye-catching product in its growing global marketplace.

We already manage air traffic control at 15 of the UK’s largest airports and at Gibraltar. Earlier this year, we renewed the air traffic control contract for Manchester Airport for the next six years and have also continued to expand our airport tower fit-out consultancy and engineering services capability.

The company’s engineers and technicians will install the latest instrument landing system at Luton Airport and deliver it without service being interrupted.

Their colleagues are also fitting out towers on the Isle of Man and Jersey, having carried out the same task at Newcastle and Edinburgh in recent years, as the company’s reputation for delivering on time and on budget continues to be strengthened.

Our experts are also redesigning the flight procedures at 54 military aerodromes as part of a five-year contract with the Ministry of Defence. The contract includes converting flying procedures used by aircraft at military airfields from the current NATO standard to civil standard to bring the MoD into line with NATO’s policy to move to the civil standard.

It will take three years to complete preparations at the airfields and the conversion of almost 800 procedures. The following two years will include maintaining and monitoring the procedures.

For us, the VCF marks a new era in the company’s maturity and capability and we will continue to seek opportunities to demonstrate its effectiveness and its importance in our range of air traffic services, data, consultancy and engineering.

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