Understanding “virtual” air-traffic control towers
Some airports are closing their most iconic structures and relocating them far away.
ONE of the most symbolic images at any airport is the control tower where, from their lofty vantage point, air-traffic controllers monitor flights taking off, coming in to land and taxiing to and from terminals. Increasingly, though, control towers will be shuttered as airports switch to using remote centres to look after flights. These centres will be housed in ordinary low-rise buildings, some of which may be hundreds of kilometres away. The centres will receive a live video feed from cameras positioned around the airfield to create a “virtual” image of the airport to be displayed on large screens positioned around the controllers’ desks. Why are airports doing this and is it safe?
The first airport to use a virtual control tower was at Ornskoldsvik, in northern Sweden. The airfield’s tower was closed in April 2015 and a remote tower installed at Sundsvall, 130km to the south. Since last year the remote tower also looks after flights at the nearby Sundsvall-Timra Airport and from next year will do the same for a third airport, Linkoping City Airport in southern Sweden. Norway is going further and consolidating control of 15 small northern airports into one virtual tower. Another 17 airports may be added to that centre later. Airports in other parts of Europe, and in America and Australia, are testing remote towers with a view to installing them. Among them is London City Airport, which plans to close its control tower in 2019 and transfer air-traffic control to a centre 145 km away.
These measures, say air-traffic-control providers, are to improve safety and reduce costs. By using multiple cameras, including infrared ones and other specialist sensors, a virtual tower should provide controllers with a greatly enhanced view, especially at night and in poor visibility. As they do at present, the controllers would continue to use radar and communicate with pilots by radio. The screens can also be used to zoom into different parts of the airfield and can be superimposed with flight information. Apart from the savings in not having to build and maintain a tall structure, the remote centres would also cut operating costs, especially when looking after more than one airport. For the Norwegian airports, this could bring the cost of air-traffic services down by as much as 40%. The savings could be used to help to maintain services at small airports which might not have control towers of their own, or are not busy enough to maintain a full-time tower service.
As in most things to do with aviation, remote towers would have multiple backup systems, including dual power supplies and additional routes for data networks. Even from afar, the controllers would be able to operate by remote-control the signal lamps which are used at airports to communicate with pilots in the event of a radio failure. Some air-traffic controllers are concerned that it may be difficult to concentrate on what is happening at more than one airport. Operating experience from the first remote towers will show if such concerns are justified.
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