Arrivals and departures at London Heathrow

London LHR arrivals and departures.

Heathrow Airport is a gateway connecting the United Kingdom to over 80 long-haul destinations. Back in 2018 its two runways handled an average of 1,303 transport movements a day from 84 airlines.

Aircraft flight paths after leaving Heathrow 27R.

This snapshot captures the flight paths of aircraft taking off from the northern 27R and landing on the southern 27L (known as westerly operations). Data was captured during a two hour window in November 2021, just as the aerodrome began to resume full operations following 18 months of travel restrictions.

Incoming and outgoing flights during a two hour period.

Flight position and altitude are derived from unfiltered ADS-B data.

A preview of an interactive 3D model showing arrivals and departures at London Heathrow.

About this project

A number of challenges presented themselves when creating this visualisation of air traffic around a busy hub. Aircraft broadcast a vast amount of data via ADS-B which needs to be managed carefully throughout the pipeline. Additionally Heathrow is a very busy airport, and it would be easy to create an indecipherable mess by capturing too many incoming and outgoing routes.

It was necessary to create a Swift backed solution in Xcode to first transform the huge dataset into a usable subset of aircraft trajectories. These could then be represented in three dimensions within Houdini.

In order to keep the realtime model to reasonable size the detail of each path was limited to a hexagonal form. This provided enough shape to form a tube, but kept the vertex count managable. This ensures even the slowest of graphic processors should be able to display the information at a sensible frame rate.

Ultimately a two-hour window during a quiet period in history proved to be ideal for understanding how traffic moves in and out of a key transport hub.

Flights leaving 27R (northern) runway at Heathrow.

View model in AR

Surface textures copyright Mapbox and OpenStreetMap.