Sky's the limit with new Prestwick air traffic control system

By Kenneth Macdonald
BBC Scotland Science Correspondent

image captionThe Prestwick centre handles the biggest area of controlled airspace in the EU

The huge air traffic control centre at Prestwick has introduced new technology designed to cope with rising numbers of flights while cutting aircraft emissions.

The system, called iTEC, will eventually allow some pilots to depart from existing airways to choose their own flightpaths. But the operator NATS is stressing human beings will remain firmly in control.

It is a huge room. More than a room in fact: buried in the walls is an enormous Faraday cage designed to stop radio transmissions and other electric fields from getting in and interfering with the electronics.

It looks about the size of a football pitch, dotted with dozens of terminals.

They don't have to change the clocks here because they are set to Universal Coordinated Time (GMT to the likes of us) all year round.

Biggest in EU

A viewing gallery looks out from the second storey and the security checks add to the impression that this is a plush, hushed terminal building which has somehow become detached from an international airport.

But the proximity to Prestwick Airport just down the road is for purely historical reasons.

The NATS area control centre is a separate entity with a much larger area of responsibility.

It controls airspace above Scotland and the north of England. Across the North Sea to the east, halfway across the Atlantic towards North America in the west.

It's the biggest area of controlled airspace in the EU.

image captionThe system has been introduced ahead of an expected 40% increase in traffic over the next 15 years

"Our role is make sure that aircraft pass through that airspace in a safe and efficient manner," says Alastair Muir, the operations director here.

"We control in the order of a million aircraft a year, which works out at about 4,000 a day."

That traffic is expected to increase by about a 40% over the next 15 years. So more planes will have to share the same air.

At the same time airlines are under pressure to cut fuel costs and emissions that harm the environment.

Which is why NATS have introduced iTEC.

Potential conflicts

NATS used to be an acronym; now it's simply the name of the company which is the UK's main air navigation service provider.

iTEC does stand for something though: "Interoperability Through European Collaboration".

At the system's core is massive computing power allied to the increasing levels of information generated by aircraft and combined with meteorological and other data.

Data such as flight plans: iTEC combines all the relevant factors to show controllers the state of their airspace now. It can also, in effect, look into the future to predict potential conflicts well before they happen.

Air traffic controller Michelle Gibson, a member of the iTEC project team, explains: "All the trajectories are in the system so it can tell our controllers which conflicts are going to happen ahead of time.

"It can feed into the system all the airspace that has become available, all the weather data, and basically gives all the information to the controllers.

"All these details that they would have manually had to go through previously."

iTEC also will also make it possible for pilots flying above 25,000ft to depart from the established airways and choose their own, more fuel-efficient, routes.

"We have like motorways in the sky to make sure the aircraft transit appropriately in our airspace," Alastair Muir says.

"With the new technologies we have, both on board the aircraft and now this new system, over the next few years we'll be taking out those structures and allowing our aircraft customers to fly where they want through our airspace."

What iTEC is not doing is taking human beings out of the system. The idea is to support the people who make the decisions, not hand those decisions to a computer.

image captionThe new system alerts air traffic controllers to potential "conflicts" with planes flying in the same airspace

People like sector controller Simon Hughes. He is handling aircraft leaving Amsterdam and traffic flying towards Norway.

He is keeping traffic away from a military danger area above the north east of England where 16 fast jets are taking part in a combat exercise. That shows on his terminal as a red hatched area.

"The conflict detection now is predominantly done by the machine," he says.

"It will give me an alert if two [aircraft] are in conflict.

"It's still up to me to resolve the conflict and come up with a plan."

The new system is already in place. It has been phased in gradually this year following hundreds of hours of testing.

It's unlikely many passengers have noticed. That was the plan.

Over the next five years it's planned to introduce iTEC to the NATS Swanwick centre which controls airspace over the southern UK.

It will also be integrated with compatible systems on the continent.

So while down here Brexit may mean Brexit, above our heads there will a single European sky.

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