Introducing – The World’s First Fully Safety Certified Virtual Control Facility


In 2009, while many were still trialling the concept, NATS developed and put into service the world’s first full safety certified remote airport contingency control room that can keep flights moving through Heathrow Airport in the event of a serious problem at the airport’s main control tower.

The Virtual Contingency Facility (VCF), which received official safety certification from the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) as a contingency facility, maintains High Intensity Runway Operations (HIRO), enabling Heathrow to continue to operate up to 70% of its flights if the main control tower was unavailable. This is a significant improvement in contingency arrangements which, before the new virtual control tower, would have delivered only around 10% of flights. Contextually, it is worth considering that few other airports around the world offer 70% of Heathrow’s air traffic movements with the controllers based on site, never mind what could be achieved via a remote solution.

The VCF exactly replicates each of the controller workstations of the main control tower and is housed in a windowless facility on a secure site away from the airfield. The VCF is based on well-established procedures approved by the CAA that allow Heathrow to operate when controllers cannot see aircraft departing, arriving or moving around the airfield from the main control tower, for example in thick fog. Using sophisticated surveillance technology together with radio communication, controllers are still able to monitor and control flights.

NATS is currently leading the implementation of an enhanced “Digital Tower” for full operational use at another HIRO single runway airport in the U.K. This system is expected to be commissioned in 2018 and will be required to operate at 40 to 50 Air Transport Movements (ATMs) per hour.

The experience gained with the implementation of the VCF at Heathrow and the development of the first permanent HIRO Digital Tower for another airport in London will enable NATS to share valuable lessons with aviation authorities in the Asia Pacific region, while managing implementation and systems integration in an expedient and cost-effective manner.

NATS’ unique strength in the planning and implementation of a Digital Tower is in developing the concept of operations, creating the safety cases to support high intensity operations, addressing human factors issues, conducting related training, meeting regulatory standards, and as in the case of Heathrow’s VCF, operationalisation. We ensure the right things happen at the right times to deliver success. NATS’ vision is that airports will soon no longer require physical control towers in order to maintain optimal capacity and performance.

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