London's cramped City Airport, located in the heart of the city, is undergoing a massive upgrade, including the addition of a fancy new air traffic control tower. But to maximise the airport's limited space, that tower is actually being built 129km away, and will rely on 14 high-def cameras to give remote ATC crews a virtual view of the far-off airport.
The idea of the airport's air traffic control team being located over an hour away from the comings and goings of all the actual planes sounds kind of terrifying. But as Tom Scott explains, this isn't the first time a virtual ATC tower has been created: countless smaller airports already employ them. And the virtual screens offer some unique advantages, like augmented overlays showing radar tags and call signs tagged to each plane as they move across the screens.
But it is the first time a virtual system like this is being used at a facility as busy as London's City Airport, which is why countless safety systems are being employed. The live feeds from the cameras are being sent through private, secure pipes, and have less than a second delay by the time they reach the virtual tower in a nearby town called Swanwick.
When one of the giant screens being monitored by air traffic control crews fails, the panoramic view of the airport is automatically reshuffled across the remaining screens until a new display can be installed in about ten minutes. And if one of the 14 cameras at the airport fails, additional pan and zoom cameras will immediately fill in the gap until repairs can be made. If the entire system fails, the ATC crew can fall back to radar and voice communications, which is what they already use when fog limits visibility.