Why the expanding aviation network in China’s Greater Bay Area can benefit from digital tower technology25 February 2022
The Greater Bay Area (GBA) in Southern China, two Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau and nine municipalities of Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, is a hub for technology, manufacturing and financial services.
As an area of great significance in the country’s innovation-driven development, the Chinese government has ambitious plans to grow the GBA with large-scale investment in technology and infrastructure, which includes developing the aviation network in the region into a world-leading transportation hub. The expansion of the airports will help cement Greater China’s position as one of the most dynamic aviation markets in the world.
Already an international hub and with a third runway under construction, pre-pandemic Hong Kong International Airport was one of the world’s busiest, transporting over 70 million passengers and almost 5 million tonnes of cargo. It is also one of the more difficult areas of airspace to manage with changeable weather conditions and steep terrain.
Development is also underway to expand Guangzhou and Shenzhen airports and Macau is undergoing improvements. A number of other smaller airports are also set to be added to the network, further connecting the region with itself and with international destinations.
Evidently, this expansion will lead to an increase in air traffic. GBA is heavily mentioned in the 14th Five-Year Plan showing the Chinese government is determined to see the region flourish. Guangzhou Baiyuan Airport and Shenzhen are already China’s top two airports in terms of traffic volumes and the construction of a world-class cluster of airports in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao GBA will be complete by 2025. Inter-airport coordination and traffic integration is therefore going to be vitally important, especially with continuous goals to advance safety, efficiency, and reliability.
It’s a challenge we’re all too familiar with in the UK. With London’s five major airports all operating within a small geographic area, and airspace that’s in huge demand. This experience has led us to work together with other air traffic service providers and airport operators around the world. In Asia Pacific, we’ve partnered with Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, India, Australia, the Philippines, Japan, and Brunei Darussalam on understanding ways to improve runway and airspace efficiently as air travel in the region accelerated.
Increasingly, its technology that is allowing airports to unlock the next level of capability and performance. That’s a trend that will only continue as traffic rebounds and then exceeds pre-pandemic levels. Digital control towers, which use cameras to present the visual environment of the airport to the controllers and can be augmented with all kinds of data sources, are a big part of that picture, helping airports to be safer, more flexible and efficient.
But to date, most digital towers have largely been put up to replicate the view of the airfield and relocate the controllers from the traditional tower. That’s an application that suits some smaller airports, but it’s not going to be how the industry unlocks the full operational benefits. One size cannot fit all.
So together with Canada-based Searidge Technologies, we’ve created five ‘models’ of digital towers – a range that can scale to suit every kind of airport from the smallest local airfield to the world’s largest hub, without necessarily replacing an airport’s exisiting physical tower. And because they all operate on the same software platform, all can access the latest tools to drive performance.
At Heathrow, for example, we’ve been running a project to demonstrate how a digital tower platform when combined with artificial intelligence (AI) can recoup lost capacity in reduced visibility. Elsewhere we’ve been developing and testing AI models to monitor radio transmissions from pilots to provide the appropriate pre-departure clearances and confirm accuracy of crew readback. This frees up the controllers from a routine semi-automated task so they can focus on key human decision making. All in all, this improves capacity and efficiency, while enhancing safety.
What digital towers can do for the GBA
Our approach to digital towers has the capability to not simply replicate, but to transform the operation of complex, high intensity airport operations. In total, 70% of visual data that air traffic controllers (ATCOs) currently monitor can be digitised and integrated through deployment of one of our digital tower models. This digital integration reduces the mental load on controllers, enabling the system to provide better support while the human is able to focus on making critical decisions.
Digital towers already have a foothold in the GBA. In April, it was announced that Searidge Technologies had been selected by the Airport Authority Hong Kong to deploy a digital tower and apron software platform to support their airport transformation and large-scale expansion plans.
With a variety of different sized airports in the GBA, an agile, scalable and easily adaptable approach to air traffic control is essential. I firmly believe that digital towers provide this alongside proven efficiency, safety and reliability. The GBA’s cluster of airports can’t settle for anything less as it supports one of the world’s great economic engines.
Further reading: When it comes to digital towers, one size doesn’t fit all
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