The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Ready for take-off: Button that can ground ATCs

British Aerospace scientists have developed a revolutionary airborne computer system that they claim can land aircraft safely without human air traffic controllers. It will enable a pilot to determine an aircraft’s landing path simply by pressing a button in the cockpit.

The new technology has been developed by BAE Systems, the British defence and aerospace company, and aims to eliminate human error, save on fuel and increase flight safety. If successful, it will threaten the jobs of 40,000 air traffic controllers worldwide. The company plans to introduce the system, which has so far cost £76 million, half of which has been funded by the European Commission, in three phases.

The first, involving the onboard computer determining the safest flight path to a position identified by a human air traffic controller, was successfully tested in March. BAE plans a full-scale trial introduction for leading airlines by 2008. By 2020, they envisage that air traffic controllers will have been entirely replaced by the system, which will take all the decisions currently made by humans.

Strategy development director of BAE Systems Avionics Group Alastair Hyndman said introduction of advanced computer technology was necessary because human air traffic controllers will soon be unable to cope with the volume of aircraft.

European air traffic is forecast to increase by up to five per cent a year and is predicted to double by 2020, largely because of the growing number of low-budget airlines.

Hyndman said the current system was overdependent on human judgments: “The air traffic controller literally directs the pilot second-by-second through all stages of flight and landing. The pilot is essentially blind because the information on the air picture is held by the air traffic controller who bears all the responsibility for deciding whether there is a potential conflict. That’s fine if there is just one aircraft to concentrate on, but at Heathrow an aircraft lands every 54 seconds.”

There are about 2,400 air traffic controllers in Britain. Approximately 5,500 aircraft fly in and out of the country every day.

Human error by controllers has been blamed for several crashes. In July last year, a Russian passenger aircraft and a German Boeing 757 cargo plane collided in mid-air, killing 71 people. Later analysis indicated that controllers in Zurich were undermanned and overwhelmed by events. BAE hopes that its system will eliminate such incidents.

Hyndman said the first stage would still require controllers, but would reduce the number of decisions they needed to take.

“The air traffic controller, instead of giving second-by-second instruction, will simply need to identify the safest position for a craft to manoeuvre into. The computer then works out which path to take and the speed necessary to reach that position safely, with least fuel expenditure. The new system relieves the controller of the mental calculations they need to make and as such, would substantially relieve their workload,” he said.

The new system could eventually result in full automation, Hyndman said. “The instructions could eventually be given digitally, from one computer system to the other. That would make it much safer for foreign pilots facing language barriers. Although it’s a big step to take, the air traffic controller could eventually become redundant by 2020.”

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