UK mulls 'radical' shake-up of air traffic control

A radar screen in an Air Traffic Control tower
Image caption Air traffic control is currently run using radar

Air traffic control in the UK could be in for a radical overhaul if research into a new way of locating and tracking aircraft gets the green light.

Radar provider Thales has been given funding to look into using existing TV signals to locate and track aircraft.

Dubbed multi-static primary surveillance radar, the system has several benefits.

Chief among them is the fact that it would free up spectrum for next-generation mobile services.

Valuable spectrum

The proposed system works by utilising the TV transmitters that are dotted around the UK.

Each will receive the same TV signal but at a slightly different time because of the reflections and interactions with aircraft flying in their vicinity.

The received signals are then compared to the original broadcast, and the difference is used to locate the position of the aircraft.

The two-year research project is being funded by the Technology Strategy Board, a government agency set up to find innovative ways of using technology.

Thales believes that the large number of TV transmitters means the system could provide a more reliable infrastructure than the current one which typically relies on one radar per airport.

From the government's point of view, a new system would mean that they could sell off spectrum currently used by air traffic control.

Wind farms

The auction of the airwaves that will allow widespread 4G services in the UK is ongoing but the government is already looking to release more spectrum for 5G services, probably around 2020.

Another issue for current air traffic control systems is that they face interference from wind farms, which are increasingly springing up around the UK to provide alternative sources of energy.

John Smith, head of Air Traffic Management strategy at Thales, told the BBC that the two issues make a compelling argument for change but admits that not everyone is persuaded that the current system, which has been in use since World War Two, needs an overhaul.

"There are an awful lot of barriers to gaining acceptance in the market place," he said.

"In the air traffic control industry there is a belief that things have always been done a certain way and so there is reluctance to move to something that is radically different. We have to prove, first and foremost, that it is safe."

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