October 5, 2020

Digital facilities: NAV CANADA and Searidge gear up to test video technology for air traffic services

Rapid improvements in the precision and reliability of camera technology have made it possible for flight service specialists and air traffic controllers to use video technology to enhance their operations. This camera technology, developed by our partner Searidge Technologies, allows operational staff to gain visual line of site of blind spots on the airfield through video displays. It has been deployed at various sites across the country in recent years: Red Deer, Kingston and Lethbridge FSS as well as London, Vancouver Harbour, Vancouver International and Winnipeg Tower. Searidge has also deployed this technology at many sites around the world.

A major initiative is taking shape at NAV CANADA that will take this camera technology a step further, using it to provide airport advisory services from digital facilities in geographically independent locations.

Digital facility cameras

A digital facility uses advanced camera technology and immersive video displays to provide a view of the airfield and surrounding airspace. The expected safety benefits of using certified video are significant, allowing flight service specialist and controllers to see areas that they do not see today, and increasing situational awareness at remote locations. Digital facilities could also provide the flexibility to match our services to air traffic demands, new tools to enhance situational awareness in all visibility conditions and additional automated safety features.

NAV CANADA recently received Transport Canada’s approval to provide Aerodrome Advisory Service (AAS) using digital facilities in Saint John, New Brunswick. We caught up with Jerome Gagnon, General Manager, Montreal Flight Information Region and Program Director, Digital Facilities at NAV CANADA, to learn more.

Digital facility cameras

Tell me, how did the digital facilities project come about?

About 10 years ago, NAV CANADA began its partnership with Searidge, a world leader in camera technology for aviation. The cameras were initially deployed as a trial at many sites to support the operations.

In some instances, a controller working in the cab of a regular tower may be unable to see an area of the apron or a threshold of a runway due to physical structures obstructing their view. We started deploying these cameras as a solution. The cameras were being tested in various conditions to make sure that they work in the cold, during fog, rain, when it’s windy, and in icing conditions. What we discovered was they performed reliably well.

From there, we decided, “okay, now we would like to use this camera technology as the sole source of visual reference for the field.” This is what we call the digital facility. Instead of looking outside of a window, you use the camera technology to capture what is happening on the field and display the video feed on an integrated set of screens.

What are the benefits and use-cases of this technology?

There are significant safety benefits. For example, we can see areas that we were not able to see before. Currently, some flight service stations provide Remote Aerodrome Advisory Service (RAAS) with no line of site of the airport. By integrating these cameras, we can enhance this service, increasing safety and efficiency too.

Remote facilities could also offer a lot of flexibility in staffing sites and providing services during off-peak hours.

At the Saint John trial, the view of Fredericton (shown here) will be split across three digital screens. Up is an example of the sunset settings, down, an example of night settings.

Can you tell us about the remote facilities trials that are taking place in Saint John?

We recently received approval from Transport Canada to begin trials in Saint John to provide Aerodrome Advisory Service (AAS) for the Fredericton Airport during midnight hours.

We have eight cameras total aiming in every direction of the Fredericton airfield. The purpose there is to transfer what we call RAAS service, where aircraft are tracked as targets on graphic displays, into AAS service, providing a real view of aircraft through video. This view also allows the specialist to control vehicle on the ground instead of providing vehicle advisory service. This eliminates many limitations in the advisory services that the flight service specialist can provide, making it a lot safer and a lot more efficient in many ways.

Can you offer an example of how operations will be more efficient?

If a ground vehicle requests access onto a runway and, for example, a flight service specialist can’t see the field, they are mandated to ensure the vehicle will be off the runway five minutes before the arrival of an aircraft. In some cases, this will result in an aircraft flying in a holding pattern in the air.

But if the flight service specialist can see the ground vehicle, they can clear the traffic on the runway, relay that information to the aircraft and monitor the evolution avoiding having the aircraft hold.

What will the remote facility in Saint John look like?

The video will be displayed on three monitors in landscape orientation. The view of the six mounted fixed cameras are stitched together on these three monitors. A separate touch screen monitor is used to trigger pre-sets and to pan, tilt and zoom the two remaining cameras. This gives the specialist the flexibility to zoom to the threshold, zoom to an entry point, focus in on the apron, or quickly switch to a view of the crossing runways.

How does artificial intelligence play into all of this? 

There’s a lot of potential in being able to implement artificial intelligence to enhance the capabilities of our employees by providing situational awareness and decision support tools so they can do their job more effectively, taking away some routine tasks so that they can focus on more complex decisions.

At the beginning, we want to introduce basic functionalities. For example, if we ask the system, through a pre-set button, to scan runway 33, the system will zoom and scan the entire runaway.

Longer term, we also want to look into the application of image recognition. For example, if the system understands that a Dash 8 alpha is supposed to be on final, it can then also offer a warning if it detects a different aircraft based on its visual appearance. Similarly, warnings can also be triggered in emergency situations where landing gear in not out during a landing, for example.

If the testing goes well, what’s next?

There is certainly an appetite for digital facilities. It is cost effective and it is flexible, enabling NAV CANADA to better serve our customers.

The next step will be to use the learnings from these trials to develop a national strategy of deployment.

From these tests we will learn more about the resources and infrastructure needed for a wider implementation of digital facilities across Canada.

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