Remote towers near European certification

Most of the recent progress with remote towers has been occurring outside the United States, according to Bob Poole writing in his latest industry newsletter.

One of the earliest implementations of the next-generation air traffic management concept of managing traffic ‘anywhere from anywhere’ will be remote (or virtual) towers – providing tower functions from an off-airport location based on an array of sensing devices and displays, rather than from a physical tower providing out-the-window access.

“Not much has been heard about remote towers from the FAA since very promising simulations that took place in 2007 at the agency’s test centre in Atlantic City,” writes Poole. “Those simulations, using experienced controllers and instructors, demonstrated equivalent performance during VFR conditions, but dramatically better performance at night and under low-visibility IFR conditions. Yet controllers’ perceived workload was less, since the displays and information made their jobs easier.”

Poole reports that at October’s meeting of the Air Traffic Control Association in the US, he watched a dramatic display of Saab Sensis’s remote tower technology.

The airport equipment includes a 14-camera high-definition video surveillance pod which includes two that can pan, tilt, and zoom plus a light gun for communicating with aircraft without a functioning radio.

Also included are infrared and motion-detection systems. The remotely located control room includes fourteen 42-inch display screens providing a panoramic view, along with standard ATC software including electronic flight strips. Controllers at the centre can remotely operate airport systems such as runway lights, alarms, etc. and have normal radio contact with aircraft and ground vehicles at the airport.

“LFV, the Swedish ANSP, has worked with the company to develop and test the system at several airports over the past six years. Now Saab Sensis is installing the equipment at two airports, Ornskoldsvik and Sundsvall, about 100 miles apart, to be controlled from a single facility,” reports Poole.

The certification process will begin in January, and LFV expects approval from Sweden’s air safety regulator by June or July. Saab Sensis has other remote tower projects under way in Australia and Norway.

“What may be the first remote or virtual tower in the US is a proposed virtual tower for Beckley airport in West Virginia,” reports Poole. “This month the Raleigh County Memorial Airport Authority board is due to vote on a proposal it requested from Florida-based Quadrex Aviation to implement such a facility, assuming FAA approval.

Although he has been unable to obtain a copy of the proposal, Poole says it would apparently provide automated information to pilots, using a model Quadrex calls Synthetic Air Traffic Advisory System (SATAS). “This appears to be quite different from what FAA and LFV have tested,” he notes.

Saab Sensis has confirmed that it is talking with one potential customer with 42 low-volume airports that it would like to manage from six virtual control centers.

“With remote towers, small airports with conventional towers that shut down at night due to low traffic could move to 24/7 operation, with several of them operated from a single remote centre. And smaller airports in danger of losing their tower due to declining traffic volume could replace the tower with services from a remote location serving several airports,” says Poole.

“A number of proposed towers for medium and large US airports should be re-thought, given the feasibility and cost-effectiveness of remote towers,” says Poole. “Airport expansion at places like O’Hare and Los Angeles International means that out-the-window visibility of all portions of the airport will be impaired. Rather than adding a second tower (as ORD has already done) or a third tower (as is now planned there), conversion to an all-airport virtual tower operation would be far more cost-effective.”

“The fiscal constraints facing both ANSPs and airlines make it imperative that air traffic control productivity be increased, offering aviation customers more bang for the buck. Remote towers, as a fine example of managing traffic “anywhere from anywhere,” should play an important role in such productivity increases,” he  concludes.

Read More: Virtual Worlds and Remote Possibilities

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