British airports and NATS consider replacing air traffic controllers with remote system
Date added: July 18, 2016
Air traffic controllers could soon be a dying breed, as British airports are considering using digital technology to monitor planes. Cameras and sensors could make traditional towers “obsolete” by 2025 according to Saab, which has pioneered the technology. The Swedish defence and security company has already trialled the new systems in the United States, Sweden, Australia, Norway and Ireland. Now several major British airports are considering scrapping air traffic control towers in favour of a digital set-up, where cameras relay information from the runway to a remote control room. Saab says the technology, which was shown off at the Farnborough airshow, comes at a fraction of the cost of the older system without affecting safety. NATS is always keen to increase profits. Proponents of the system claim they are more effective than having people on the ground, since cameras can pick up things which are harder to spot with the human eye. Saab says the systems are safe technically, and the level of encryption is very high, making hacking unlikely. The Irish Aviation Authority is trialling the use of digital towers at Cork and Shannon airports. NATS has confirmed it is considering a number of potential digital projects in the UK.
British airports consider replacing air traffic controllers with remote system
By Jane Mathews (Telegraph)
18 JULY 2016
Air traffic controllers could soon be a dying breed, as British airports are considering using digital technology to monitor planes.
Cameras and sensors could make traditional towers “obsolete” by 2025 according to Saab, who have pioneered the technology.
The Swedish defence and security company has already trialled the new systems in the United States, Sweden, Australia, Norway and Ireland.
Now several major British airports are considering scrapping air traffic control towers in favour of a digital set-up, where cameras relay information from the runway to a remote control room.
And while nervous fliers might be concerned at the demise of the traditional towers, Saab says the technology, which was showcased at last week’s Farnborough International Airshow in Hampshire, comes at a fraction of the cost of the older system without affecting safety.
Aviation expert Thomas Withington said: “Remote air traffic control is already in operation at smaller airports, as there isn’t always an air traffic control officer present in the control tower.
“A larger airport, for example, can perform local air traffic control for a smaller airport because the former has a radar which covers a huge area and it makes more practical and economic sense for them to do so.
“Digital air traffic control services will still use controllers to monitor such systems, but maybe will have just one or two instead of a whole tower full of people.”
Proponents of the system claim they are more effective than having people on the ground, since cameras can pick up things which are harder to spot with the human eye.
Mr Withington also said that modern security measures were so sophisticated that there was virtually no risk to passengers.
He said: “In terms of hacking, there’s always a risk for anything, but the level of communications and security encryption in these systems will be very, very hard to hack to the point where it’s almost impossible. Commercial flights would have at least the same level of communications security as that used for military communications, or possibly more.”
The Irish Aviation Authority is trialling the use of digital towers at Cork and Shannon airports, with air traffic managed at a control centre hundreds of miles away at Dublin airport. The United States is also testing the technology at Leesburg Airport in Virginia.
The system made its world debut in Ornskoldsvik Airport in Sweden, where flights have been controlled by a remote tower in Sundsvall, 110 miles away, since 2015.
Britain’s air navigation service provider NATS has confirmed it is considering a number of potential digital projects in the UK.
Several major airports across Europe are also looking into using the systems, Saab has said.
Per Ahl, director of marketing and sales at Saab, said: “For almost a century the control tower has physically been at the centre of airports as a bricks and mortar installation, but digital technology is ushering in a new age, where air traffic controllers are pooled together to create efficiencies.
“We are in conversation with a number of British airports who are interested in our technology and I am confident that in a decade the traditional tower will become obsolete as digital technology becomes the norm.”
Steve Anderson, head of transformation at NATS, said that the remote towers were “an exciting technological development for our industry”.
He added: “Delivering airport air traffic services remotely from centralised locations could be transformational for our business and we are actively exploring a number of potential opportunities in the UK.”
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.