EU Program Looks to Augmented Reality to Improve Airport Throughput, Safety

The RETINA project is a European Union-funded initiative aimed at helping air traffic controllers increase their productivity—even when weather conditions deteriorate.

An illustration of how RETINA might impact a controllers’ field of view. (Image courtesy of EU RETINA Project.)

An illustration of how RETINA might impact a controllers’ field of view. (Image courtesy of EU RETINA Project.)

Air traffic controllers have an important job. Coordinating the landings, takeoffs and ground movements of dozens or hundreds of aircraft in a single day is complicated, and the consequences of mistakes can be massive. These things are doubly true in weather conditions that adversely impact the view from the airport control tower.

In an effort to mitigate the decrease in throughput that comes when a controller’s vision is compromised, the European Union is backing the RETINA project. RETINA aims to incorporate synthetic vision and augmented reality to improve the situational awareness and field of view of these professionals in challenging meteorological situations.

Real-time, Informational Overlay

RETINA’s testing has centered around the wearing of head-mounted displays that superimpose visual information critical to air traffic controllers over their actual view from the control tower. The displays enable a head-up view of what’s happening on the airfield in foggy, rainy or low-light circumstances by augmenting what controllers actually see with data on wind direction and velocity, along with the positioning of aircraft relative to others. The Microsoft HoloLens HMD was used exclusively throughout testing and is likely to be the model that RETINA rolls out to airports when implementation begins.

Projected Improvements and Timeline

The expected payoff of the initiative is twofold: productivity and safety. In low-visibility weather conditions, an air traffic controller’s ability to coordinate incoming and outgoing traffic is diminished. This clogs up both the local airport and, indirectly, those in surrounding areas. The augmented reality solution offered by RETINA will allow controllers to “see” the same way in these conditions as they can when the weather is perfect, thus minimizing periods of inefficiency and congestion.

Applying AR to the problems posed by weather events should also make processes safer for pilots, ground crews and passengers. If controllers can rely on sight rather than exclusively using their digital displays, it helps ensure that important details aren’t lost in the shuffle. It’s much less likely for a plane to cross over an in-use runway if controllers can clearly see the action from the tower.

Unfortunately, while early results have been promising, the RETINA program isn’t likely to find its way into European control towers anytime soon. The program’s directors indicate it needs substantially more testing in real-life situations to verify its trustworthiness. After all, air traffic controllers probably have a hard enough job without inaccurate data popping up across their field of vision.