NATS uses SQL Server and Azure to improve air traffic management

Sean Dudley
Sean Dudley
By Sean Dudley on 13 April 2016
NATS uses SQL Server and Azure to improve air traffic management

NATS – the organisation that manages air traffic in UK airspace – is revolutionising its business and harnessing the potential of flight data thanks to SQL Server and Azure.

The management of air traffic in the UK is a complex procedure, as flight operation including planned trajectories and radar tracked movements need to be monitored. This naturally produces a huge amount of complex data, which NATS collects and monitors.

NATS performs business intelligence (BI) on a variety of areas, including safety, service and value performance. However, the organisation was struggling to gain actionable insight that could help inform and support decision-making, as well as numerous time management challenges. Furthermore, data had become increasingly difficult to analyse. More than 15 terabytes of high-resolution airspace operations data had been amassed in four years alone.

“We had the analogy that the analytics teams were like a box of straws on its side,” said Gavin Walker, chief information officer at NATS. “Each process that they did was very similar but different, so it was hugely inefficient. They spent 80% of their time manipulating the data, and 20% of the time actually analysing it. We wanted to turn that ratio around.”

In order to tackle its data analysis challenges, NATS put together a small team of specialists to help execute the company’s BI strategy. The team decided that SQL Server on Microsoft Azure would provide the on-demand scalability NATS needed, without the time and cost involved in building a data centre.

NATS began to build its data warehouse schema in the cloud, with 250 Azure Virtual Machines running SQL Server as part of its architecture. This warehouse integrated local and national radar data, weather readings and more than 6,000 daily flight plans.

Algorithms are also run to calculate CO2 emissions and to analyse air traffic management. NATS uses a range of interactive reporting interfaces, including SQL Server Reporting Services and SharePoint, to take advantage of technologies like Power View and Bing Maps for enhanced visualisation of air traffic spatial data. 

The data warehouse now handles more than 15 million rows of radar data every day, with each Azure Virtual Machine independently processing seven days of data at a time.

In a matter of weeks, NATS has been able to create a data warehouse store of four years of processed data. This has enabled greater analysis of airspace network operations, reduced CO2, and increased flight safety.

“With our SQL Server solution, we can analyse a flightplan versus a flight’s actual trajectory and accurately model fuel usage and CO2 output to understand the effect of network influences and operational decisions,” said Raymond Lim, BI manager at NATS. “This enables us to strategically manage the air traffic operation with more information to hand, and have more confidence in our decisions.”

NATS is now looking to enhance its predictive analytics capabilities using Azure Machine Learning, in order to help improve air traffic operations. Interactive, self-service BI tools are also helping to improve the efficiency of the company’s analysts and managers.

“For NATS, it’s about the ability to look for hotspots, identify the underlying causes, make changes, and then monitor the benefits,” said Walker. “That’s how we’re using Azure to add to the continuous improvement of the overall air traffic network across the UK.”

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