Remote Possibilities

With the latest remote tower operation trials conducted in Sweden this May, SESAR – Europe’s ATM modernisation programme – reports that the concept is one step closer to realisation,

Over a period of three weeks, 14 European air traffic controllers validated two technical configurations that allowed them to observe the traffic and controller decisions taken in a tower located 100 km away. Göran Lindqvist and Thomas Svensson from Swedish air navigation service provider LFV explain what happened during the operational validation organised as part of SESAR’s second Release programme.

Göran, Thomas, could you first please briefly explain the remote tower concept and its benefits?

Today, air traffic services are managed by controllers directly located at a given airport. In a nutshell, the remote tower concept looks into how one airport can be managed and controlled from a from a larger Remote Tower Control (RTC) centre at another location. The main benefits this concept brings about are flexibility and cost efficiency.

Keeping smaller, local airports alive can be a challenge. Traffic values in rural areas are not increasing and some of the airports for which the remote tower technology could be an option to log four to five arrivals and departures a day. Even if the numbers are very small, these airports have a huge value for the local communities and closing them would sometimes literally mean capping them from their life line. On the other hand, it is expensive to ensure a controller permanency, it might be difficult to find and train staff appropriately, etc. By introducing a remote tower concept, we can assure continuity of operations and limit costs.

In the framework of SESAR, you recently validated the concept. Could you explain the exercises and the difference to those performed in 2011?

This latest trial has lasted for three weeks and involved 14 controllers from Norway, Spain, Estonia, Finland and Sweden. In two different configurations – a basic and an advanced one – the participants could follow from the control centre in Malmö what was happening at Ängelholm airport, some 100 km away. During this trial, the controllers did not control the traffic flows but put themselves in the situation of the local colleagues through a set of cameras located at the distant airport. Such, they could directly follow not only the traffic situation but also had real-time access to relevant air traffic services aids such as weather information, strips and flight plan systems, airport lights and navigation aid controls.

We wanted to see how the controllers reacted on the visual reproduction of what was going on outside the tower, changes in the controller working position and some additional tools. Important aspects of the trials are of course also questions such as ‘Do the controllers trust the technology?’ or if they thought to have reacted differently if located in the tower directly.

What is your initial evaluation? What will be the next steps?

As said before, we tested two different configurations: a basic and a more advanced one. The difference being that the advanced set-up included radar surveillance, infrared cameras, additional camera views, and a new tracking tool. We haven’t concluded the evaluation yet but the initial reaction was very encouraging. We learned from the controllers participating in the trial that even with the basic set-up they felt comfortable to perform their tasks safely for low traffic times. The acceptance of the advanced set-up was consequently even higher.

Currently we are still evaluating the single remote tower operation procedures. Next winter we will test the concept at the Vaeröy heliport, on the Lofoten islands in the very North of Norway. The extreme weather situation, almost complete darkness and freezing conditions will really put the technology to the test. The step thereafter will be multiple remote tower operations, i.e. controllers from one centre run a couple of smaller airports. We will also look into remote towers as a contingency solution for larger airports, where a remote function as a back-up in cases of emergency can be located in close vicinity to that airport, but not in the existing tower building, of course.

We’re expecting to conduct the first live implementation for the remote tower concept in northern Sweden during 2013/14.

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One Response to Remote Possibilities

  1. Tony Rothwell says:

    As a qualified tower ATC and pilot I have to wonder what you are trying to achieve with this program? Sure it is technically feasible for controllers to operate a tower remotely with all the modern data sensing kit available. But the article mentions four of five arrivals and departures a day as representative for some of the airports. Why control them at all regardless of the size of the aircraft involved? I appreciate there are times when your weather is far worse than we experience but we operate airports with no ATC – near or remote – and with scheduled traffic up to B767 and sometimes larger. I am aware that Australia is interested in your program to add remote tower capability to some of the airports of which I speak and at traffic levels above perhaps 150 daily movements that is a great idea and we will learn from you…… but at even 50 movements a day, why is an ATC tower necessary? Class E airspace managed from the Center in US fashion is more than adequate – and I wish Australia would use Class E more than it does.