The UK’s first digital air traffic control tower
(Image source: Cranfield University)

The UK’s first digital air traffic control tower

With air travel growth already causing strains across the sector and UK passenger numbers expected to increase by 49% by 2050, Cranfield Airport is using a new digital air traffic control center developed by Saab Digital Air Traffic Solutions to manage the pace.
Cranfield Airport just became the first airport in the United Kingdom (UK) to have an operational digital air traffic control (ATC) center. Over the next few months, the airport – located in Bedfordshire, England – will work with the UK’s aviation regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority, in order to complete the transition from a traditional ATC tower to the new Digital Air Traffic Control Centre to provide a high-quality, remote ATC service.

The new digital ATC center is supplied by Saab Digital Air Traffic Solutions. The innovative technology replicates what can be seen through the windows of a traditional ATC tower. It enables smarter aircraft approaches by digitizing and integrating airport functions and improves a controller’s situational awareness, enabling quick and informed decisions.



(Image source: Cranfield University)


“Cranfield’s new control center is a fantastic example of harnessing technology to improve the efficiency of flights,” says Aviation Minister Liz Sugg. “The upcoming Aviation Strategy consultation will set out how the government proposes to encourage the use of innovative technology to achieve sustainable aviation growth and enhance passengers’ experience.”

“The Digital Air Traffic Control Centre is a significant boost for Cranfield’s global research airport and the research capabilities of [Cranfield] University. Combined with our existing and future facilities, it will cement Cranfield’s place as the home of leading aerospace and aviation research, at the heart of the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford growth arc,” says Professor Sir Peter Gregson, vice-chancellor and chief executive of Cranfield University.



The new system provides controllers with a 360-degree view of the airport and the ability to zoom-in on aircraft, improving visibility.

There are no digital control towers currently fully operational at UK airports. In 2015, the airports in Örnsköldsvik and Sundsvall in Sweden became the first in the world to be controlled via digital ATC towers in Sundsvall. And earlier this month, Saarbrücken Airport was the first airport in Germany to remotely clear aircraft for landing from the Deutsche Flugsicherung Remote Tower Control Center in Leipzig.


Read more: German air traffic controllers shift to completely remote operations at Saarbrücken Airport


Digital aviation has often been cited as being the next significant business transformation in the sector and one which can support the aerospace industry towards delivering greater customer satisfaction while addressing efficiency, cost, and capacity issues. 

“This is a historic moment for air travel in the United Kingdom and shows the future of the UK’s aviation sector lies in leading edge technology combined with operational expertise. Saab and Cranfield University started on this journey in October 2017 and have enjoyed an excellent working relationship that has resulted in today’s success,” says Johan Klintberg, CEO of Saab Digital Air Services. “We look forward to welcoming more UK airports onboard as users of this innovative technology as well as to the research benefits that this facility will contribute to the marketplace.”

With the pace of air travel growth already causing strains across the sector and UK passenger numbers expected to increase by 49% by 2050, solutions other than expansion of airport capacity and ground infrastructure need to be found. 

As well as serving Cranfield Airport, which is owned by Cranfield University, the Digital Air Traffic Control Centre is an integral part of the £67 million Digital Aviation Research and Technology Centre (DARTeC).

Scheduled to open in 2020, DARTeC will address research challenges facing the aviation industry such as the integration of drones into civilian airspace, increasing the efficiency of airports through technological advances, creating secure shared airspace through secure data communication infrastructures, and increasing the reliability and availability of aircraft through self-sensing, self-aware technologies.

Co-investment support for DARTeC is being provided through a consortium of leading aerospace and aviation companies including Thales Group, Saab AB, Monarch Aircraft Engineering Ltd, and Aveillant Ltd – as well as Research England and Cranfield University.

“This as an important step in the vision for DARTeC, which will spearhead the UK’s research into digital aviation. The Digital Air Traffic Control Centre will enable greater integration between aircraft and emerging technologies such as drones and autonomous vehicles. This is a prime example of our commitment to re-imagining ‘the airport of the future,” says Professor Graham Braithwaite, director of Transport Systems at Cranfield University and principal investigator for DARTeC.


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William Kucinski is content editor at SAE International, Aerospace Products Group in Warrendale, Pa. Previously, he worked as a writer at the NASA Safety Center in Cleveland, Ohio and was responsible for writing the agency’s System Failure Case Studies. His interests include literally anything that has to do with space, past and present military aircraft, and propulsion technology.

Contact him regarding any article or collaboration ideas by e-mail at william.kucinski@sae.org.
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