From Edinburgh’s sleek lines to Sydney’s helter-skelter, the air traffic control tower is often an iconic airport landmark. But could its days be numbered?
The introduction of remote control towers is one of the most exciting technological developments in the history of our industry. Alongside the advent of secondary radar and electronic flight strips, it could revolutionise the provision of air traffic services.
The idea of controllers using high definition cameras and remote sensing equipment to manage airport traffic from potentially hundreds or even thousands of miles away is a tantalising prospect.
For smaller airfields there are obvious cost saving benefits. Not only would a physical tower no longer need to be constantly manned and maintained, a remote tower could potentially provide a service to entire groups of small airfields, offering economies of scale that might make the difference between an airport staying open or closing.
This is exactly what’s about to start happening in Sweden, where two small airfields with low levels of traffic are to receive regulatory approval for ‘remote control’ this autumn.
For larger airports there are more challenges, but nothing insurmountable. Cameras would have to be well located and probably at a height comparable to a control tower itself. However, moving to a remote system would free up valuable airport real estate, while negating the need for an iconic – and therefore expensive – building.
There are potential safety and resilience benefits to consider too. Using cameras and screens means you are no longer limited by what the human eye can physically see out of the window. An augmented reality HUD would put vital operational information right in front of the controller, overlaid on the aircraft and airport itself in real-time. Infrared cameras could help cut through light fog, while a Google Glass type interface might one day even present specific data to individual controllers.
From the ANSP’s point of view there are potentially huge cost and efficiency benefits. Groups of controllers could be validated to work for a number of different airports from a single remote tower facility – perhaps even located in an existing en-route control centre.
For NATS, we’re excited by what remote towers could mean for our airports business and we’re currently in discussions with a number of manufacturers and service providers to understand where the opportunities may lie. Interestingly we have had a remote tower facility as a contingency for Heathrow since 2009, albeit without ‘windows’!
There are questions still to be answered about regulation and the ability to consistently stream huge amounts of data between the airport and remote tower, but in many ways that’s only an extension of the technology we’re using today. We are already reliant on getting information from the ground and air to the tower. Is it so different if that tower happens to not physically be at the airport? And in the event of the cameras not operating, it would be no different to the low visibility procedures that we’re already so well practiced in today.
I’m in little doubt that this is the next big thing for our industry, but are we moving towards a time when physical control towers won’t be needed at all? We’ll see.
[Header image: SAAB]
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