Air traffic control is all about getting as many aircraft through your airspace as efficiently and safely as possible. If you can successfully do that day in day out, passengers, airports and airlines will all be happy – sounds simple!
But for years that formula has been dependent on the skill and ability of the person doing the controlling, and even then an individual can only ever do so much. It is only relatively recently that that expertise has become increasingly married to better and better technological tools.
Technology isn’t replacing the need for air traffic controllers, but it is changing the nature of their job. From a mainly manual operation, where the controller used paper strips and held a mental picture of the aircraft under their guidance, controlling is now much more about making planned decisions supported by technological tools.
At the end of 2011, at NATS we introduced something called iFACTS to the area control room at Swanwick and it has revolutionised our operation, freeing up capacity and improving safety, while at the same time reducing delays and cutting carbon emissions.
Born out of our own original research and development, iFACTS has given our controllers a set of support tools that allows them to handle more traffic comfortably and safely. These tools, based on trajectory prediction and medium term conflict detection, provide them with decision making support while highlighting potential future aircraft conflicts.
Essentially, iFACTS enables our controllers to look up to 18 minutes into the future, with this ‘look-ahead’ capability enabling them to test the viability of various options available for manoeuvring aircraft, as well as providing more time to make decisions.
From an operational point of view, this provides the area control operation at Swanwick to enhance air safety through early detection of conflicts between flights and reduce aircraft fuel burn and emissions by giving more precise routes. Last year it delivered an average 15% increase in airspace capacity in the UK, with some airspace sectors growing as high as 40% without increasing the number of operational staff or redesigning the air routes.
iFACTS has also made a major contribution to our best ever delay performance, with NATS-attributable delay in 2012 averaging 1.4 seconds per flight, the lowest since records began in the mid-1990s.
Last week I was delighted to accept an award from the Royal Institute for Navigation in recognition of what iFACTS has helped us achieve – it is a powerful example of how coupling existing human expertise with new technology can improve overall performance.
It is a very exciting time to be involved in air traffic management, and I think we are just seeing the start of a real revolution in technology; a revolution that maximises the ability of our controllers to make the most of our limited physical airspace, while still providing our customers with the safe direct routings and fuel savings that they need to survive in a tough economic climate.
iFACTS is a great example of technology for a purpose, not technology for the sake of it.