Hey, Where’s The Tower?

by Jim Bildilli

The concept of “remote control” has been around for years. We’ve used it for communications, flying hobby aircraft and for changing our TV channels. More recently, remote control has been used for piloting drones in missions as diverse as search and rescue to military applications. Operators have been relatively close or thousands of miles away utilizing satellite communications for the relay of commands.

Someday, it might be possible to land at a tower-controlled airport and not see the air traffic control tower itself. In fact, the controller could be hundreds of miles away sitting in a room with nothing more than an array of monitors, communication equipment and a full complement of switches and controls that are standard in many of today’s modern air traffic control facilities. Canada has been controlling the airspace at many of its major remote airports for years from Flight Service Stations located hundreds of miles away using only radio communications with pilots, and it has worked amazingly well. Aircraft within 5 nm of an airport and below a specified altitude are required to contact the controlling Flight Service Station for airport advisories.

But what has been lacking in Canada has been the remote “audio and visual” control of traffic.

Both audio and visual air traffic control testing for U.S. airports will begin in the summer of 2015 at Leesburg, Virginia’s Executive Airport (KJYO). Leesburg was chosen due to its close proximity (5 nm) to Washington Dulles International Airport and its mix of aircraft operations within complex terminal airspace. Currently, pilots utilizing Leesburg must rely on its Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF) to announce their intentions and position within the airport area.

We’ve all heard of Saab, most likely in connection with the now defunct automotive company. But few people are aware of Saab’s activities in the defense and security business. Saab will be partnering with Virginia’s Small Aircraft Transportation System (VSATS) laboratory in a demonstration project to evaluate the use of a remote tower system at a non-towered airport.

VSATS is a State of Virginia, non-profit/public-private corporation established to examine ways to utilize smaller airports to become a more vibrant component of the overall aviation system. The Virginia Department of Aviation is also an advisory partner for the project.

High definition video and 14 pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) cameras will provide an uninterrupted 360-degree view of the airport environs, providing data directly to a Remote Tower Center (RTC) at the airport. The RTC will have multiple high-definition displays and two working air traffic control tower positions with command of voice communications, the cameras and signal light guns (SLG). Because this is a demonstration/evaluation project, a mobile air traffic control tower will be deployed at the same time. Both the remote and mobile units will be staffed with FAA-certified control tower operators.

The imagery and information garnered by the tower and its systems will then be fed to one central location or Remote Tower Center where it will be displayed live on Liquid Crystal Displays (LCD). Flight information, like that which is currently displayed on controller’s radar screens, can be added to the LCDs for easier identification. Using the data from the various sources, the controllers can direct both air and ground traffic at the airport with both radio and visual instructions.

Saab delivered its first RTC to the Swedish Air Navigation Service Provider (ANSP) – Luftfartsverket – to provide air traffic control at two airports in northern Sweden. Two systems are under evaluation at heliports and an airport in Norway. Several other countries including Ireland, Switzerland, Germany, Thailand and New Zealand have shown an interest in the concept and installation.

The remote systems reduce construction costs of a conventional tower, and do not require controllers to live near any of the locations. Remote locations that have low volume commercial traffic can benefit greatly from a remote tower, but with much lower initial and continuing expense.

Per Ahl, Saab’s head of Commercial, Civil Security and Traffic Management for Western Europe, stated that there was some initial opposition to the concept of remote traffic management because of its potential to eliminate controller positions at outlying airports. But over time, controller acceptance in Europe has grown, along with the enthusiasm for employing new technologies to efficiently manage air traffic at airports that might otherwise lose their towered service. Ahl states that “It’s not a technology issue any more; it’s a change of mindset, to have all of the actors on board.”

Both the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association have been to Sweden to observe the system. Hopefully, the installation at Leesburg should provide everyone with the information they need to make an intelligent decision to expand the service to other remote locations in the U.S.

Many of us remember when you could walk into a weather station or Flight Service Station to obtain a briefing or file a flight plan. For better or worse, technology has replaced our visits to those facilities with a phone call or the Internet. Hummm….shades of things to come???

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This entry was posted in Airports, All Features, Aug/Sept 2015, Features, Technology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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