Ground-breaking North Sea helicopter safety system goes live

13 December 2010

Oil & Gas UK and NATS, the UK’s leading air navigation service provider, today announced the world’s first operational use of wide area multilateration technology for tracking offshore flights.

Helicopters in transit to and from oil and gas platforms in the North Sea are now visible to air traffic controllers from takeoff to landing, increasing the safety of helicopter traffic and efficiency of rescue operations.

Multilateration uses signal transmitters and receivers fitted to offshore oil and gas platforms to track helicopters at a much greater range than radars. Previously, helicopters would be lost to shore-based radars 80 miles from land; this new system follows flights from runway to platform in real time.

This information allows air traffic controllers to keep safe separation between helicopters operating around the platforms and provides vital details on helicopters’ locations in the event of an emergency.

“This is a major step forward for safety, as we can offer a traffic service to aircraft in the North Sea and pinpoint helicopters in emergency situations,” said John Mayhew, NATS’ general manager, Aberdeen.

“It also enables more direct routing of helicopters to and from offshore platforms, which delivers environmental and efficiency benefits.”

The system uses signal transmitters and receivers fitted to 16 offshore oil and gas platforms (four clusters of four platforms) in the central area of the North Sea, to track and identify individual helicopters across 25,000 square miles of sea, in real time.

When a helicopter leaves the 80mile shore-based radar zone, its transponder responds to an interrogation signal sent from a platform, which is then sent back and detected by receivers on each of the four platforms in a cluster. Only three signals need to be received in order to provide a position for the helicopter, but the fourth signal both increases accuracy and gives some redundancy should a signal not be received. The data is then sent to the control tower at Aberdeen Airport where it provides real-time information for the controllers.

The offshore industry Helicopter Task Group was instrumental in helping to expedite delivery of the multilateration system. The project began in 2004 and was officially unveiled last year. Since then, successful flight trials have taken place, the system optimised and training undertaken by Air Traffic Control staff. The multilateration system went live on 11 December 2010.

Robert Paterson, health, safety and employment issues director with Oil & Gas UK, welcomed the launch, adding: “I am very pleased to see this system go live now.

“This is a considerable step forward in helicopter safety and typifies the sterling work done by the Helicopter Task Group – to drive important safety-related projects to a successful conclusion.”

Notes to Editors:

  • NATS handled 2.2 million flights in 2009, covering the UK and eastern North Atlantic and carried more than 200 million passengers safely through some of the busiest and most complex airspace in the world.
  • NATS provides air traffic control from its centres at Swanwick, Hampshire and Prestwick, Ayrshire.
  • NATS also provides air traffic control services at 15 of the nation’s major airports including Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow, together with air traffic services at Gibraltar Airport.
  • In addition to providing air traffic control services at the airport, the NATS controllers at Aberdeen also provide specialist ATC services to the helicopters supporting the UK North Sea oil and gas industry. The area covered stretches from north of the Shetland Islands down to the gas fields off the coast of East Anglia.
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