New tech targets airport delays

New system allows air traffic controllers to sit in one office and control several different airports

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 July, 2016, 9:25pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 July, 2016, 12:44pm

Flight delays are arguably one of the biggest annoyances of air travel. But technology designed to automate everything from air traffic control to baggage check-in could make this a thing of the past.

On Monday, at the UK's Farnborough air show, Swedish defense company Saab showed off a system that could allow air traffic controllers to direct the flow of airplanes at an airport — even from hundreds of miles away.

Plus, it would allow traffic controllers to decide more efficiently which planes should land first, meaning less delays.

"In terms of efficiency, we see this will help to support air traffic controllers ... and get a much smoother throughput for aircraft," Anders Carp, head of Saab's traffic management unit, told reporters during a briefing at Farnborough.

Traditionally, air traffic controllers would be in a large concrete tower overlooking the runway. Each airport would have one of these towers to control the flow of traffic.

Saab wants to make these towers obsolete by 2025. Its new system allows air traffic controllers to sit in one office and control several different airports. A circular room is equipped with screens covering the wall 360 degrees around to replicate a traditional tower.

Cameras can relay what is happening on the landing strip to the remote control room. The software automatically motion tracks the incoming planes and infrared technology allows controllers to see all of the runways, even in the night when light is low.

Saab formed a joint venture with the Swedish Civil Aviation Administration last year and implemented the technology into Örnsköldsvik airport, with the remote control tower 93 miles away in Sundsvall. It has been up and running since April 2015.

A number of other airports are testing the technology including Leesburg in Virginia, US, and Cork and Shannon in Ireland.

Saab also sees the whole airport experience from baggage check-in to boarding the aircraft becoming automated. It has a software called Aerobahn that helps different operators at airports share data to make the process more efficient. This could help ensure ground handlers meet the plane at the gate when it arrives, to speed up the offloading of baggage, for example.

Saab is not the only company looking to create the airport of the future. Portugal-based firm Vision-Box is trialing technology that will eventually make the journey from entering the airport to boarding the aircraft automated.

Its product, called Happy Flow, is a series of checkpoints that work by recognising a passenger's face. A user first checks in using their boarding pass and passport. The software then saves the person's details. Next the passenger can check in their bags solely by a camera scanning their face. The same process happens at border control and boarding the aircraft too.

"It's too stressful today to get on time on the airline. People really stress out at the airport … and we think that's not good anymore," says Miguel Leitmann, CEO of Vision-Box.

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