Nocturnal team delivers Heathrow surveillance improvements


A significant project to fully update the ground-based surveillance system at Heathrow Airport has reached a major milestone, thanks to NATS air traffic engineers.

The project has seen the NATS team, working with Heathrow, to update 31 multilateration ground stations  in addition to installing 21 new ground stations and masts across the airport. This equipment is vital to monitoring the safe movement of aircraft and vehicles. 

All the new ground stations have now been brought online; work that involved the team reaching inaccessible locations all over the airfield while often working through the night so as to not disrupt normal operations. 

The system uses multilateration and ADS-B technologies to track aircraft and suitably equipped airside vehicles. The busy and complex layout of an airport is often a challenging environment for conventional surveillance systems. Multilateration uses multiple ground stations to determine the position of aircraft, both on the ground and on approach, as well as providing altitude, identification and downlinked data – information that forms a vital part of NATS’ ‘Intelligent Approach’ system for separating arriving aircraft.   

Heathrow was the first airport in the world to adopt multilateration in 2000. This latest upgrade will help ensure it continues to provide high quality and accurate data for both the control tower and Heathrow operations teams, vital for the ongoing safe and efficient running of the airport.  

Heathrow’s Director of Operations, Kathryn Leahy, said: “We’re proud to have worked with NATS to deliver such a complex project during a challenging time for our industry. This work will go a long way towards making our airfield even safer and more efficient ahead of demand returning post-COVID.”

Iain Harris, NATS Director of Service Operations, said: “We knew that night-time access to the 52 sites would be required to minimise the operational impact. The teams have been working on sites including terminal roofs, air bridges, lighting poles as well as one site on a local hotel. It’s been a challenge, especially with added COVID restrictions, but it means we’ve helped deliver increased coverage and more accurate performance to the tower and airport, preparing it for many years more service and future uses.”

As well as installing new ground units, the team also moved communications links over to fibre, updated software and replaced remote units of older generations. Final work to complete the software upgrade will be finished in the next few months.