Control without bounds
The rise of the digital 'remote' tower
The airport tower has been synonymous with air traffic control for as long as the modern concept has existed. Croydon Airport, with its gleaming white tower bristling with radio antenna and full of controllers directing canvas skinned aircraft set the template over 90 years ago.
The technology in the tower, on the ground and in the air may have evolved enormously, but the concept of a physical tower to provide air traffic controllers with the means to visually direct aircraft has remained the unchanged and unchallenged until very recently.
Now, the advent of super-fast fibre networks, high definition cameras and remote sensing technology is allowing for a revolution in airport air traffic management. Instead of a tower full of controllers and equipment, there is a camera mast that transmits images and data to a separate control centre that could be hundreds or even thousands of miles away. There, the view of the airfield is stitched back together to create a live 360 degree image that can be augmented with other operational data, from radar labels on individual aircraft, to the location of closed taxiways.
This single 'head up display' is designed to improve a controller's situational awareness, while the mast itself provides everything a full fat tower does despite also being several million pounds cheaper.
Technology behind the revolution
Digital towers will change the face of airport air traffic management, but they also make use of tried and tested technology. Here's how it works:
High definition cameras provide a full 360 degree view of the airport
A pan-tilt-zoom camera can magnify any part of the airfield up to 40 times for close inspection
Laser range finder can measuring distances to any point on the airfield to millimetre accuracy
Displays enhanced with augmented reality style maps and aircraft data for increased controller awareness
As well as tracking aircraft, the system can alert the tower to airfield incursions and even drones
A digital tower provides everything a normal tower does, despite also being several million pounds cheaper
The pioneers in this new world have been in Scandinavia, with the first remote digital control tower installed at Örnsköldsvik airport in April 2015, followed then by Sundsvall in 2016. These airfields are vital to their local communities, but are otherwise geographically remote and see just a handful of movements a day. By providing air traffic services from a more central location, where a controller can 'plug and play' as required, means these airports remain viable for their operators and local communities. Everyone wins.
Trials have since begun all over the world, including in Australia, Hungary, France, Ireland and the United States, and there is a palpable excitement around the industry for what is being set up to be the biggest transformation in air traffic management since the introduction of radar.
It's a total misconception that digital towers are only suitable for small airports
However, despite that excitement a narrative has also taken root that digital solutions are only appropriate for smaller, geographically remote airfields with low traffic volumes. But Steve Anderson, Head of Airport Transformation at NATS, says the UK ANSP has more ambitious plans for how digital towers can help its airport customers.
"Yes there are clear benefits for smaller airfields, absolutely. Economies of scale, the ability to control multiple airports from one location, that's all true, but I think it's a total misconception that digital towers are only suitable for airports of low complexity and low ATM volume. Frankly, that's just lazy thinking."
And it's that lazy thinking that NATS is looking to challenge with its plans in the UK. The argument they make is that 'remote' air traffic services have been around for decades in the form of en-route services, so why should it be different for an airport? Steve adds, "We shift huge amounts of radar and communications data around a secure network every single day to provide a service in some of the world's busiest airspace, so I'm absolutely confident we can do the same for any airport."
It's a mind-set shift, but one that means the coming digital revolution is one for everyone, even the busiest airports.
Work is already underway at NATS on a digital tower operations room that will demonstrate the ANSP's capability to provide a remote air traffic control service for any airport that wants one.
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But what of those who point to questions around safety, cyber security and resilience? Steve again: "Safety is something we are never prepared to compromise on, so we're using technology that has completed 10 years of R&D and live trials."
And in terms of resilience and cyber security, nothing is being left to chance. Handling and protecting large quantities of operational data is something that NATS has been well practiced in for many years and has invested significantly in cyber security resources and expertise. It's that same mind-set will be brought to bear when here, while the inclusion of three entirely independent fibre network connections will offer best in class levels of operational resilience. Steve adds: "There are multiple fall backs within both the systems and our procedures. If a camera fails then another helps fill the gap. There are even 'air knives' to clean the lenses should an unlucky insect wander over the camera housing."
So it seems the digital revolution has genuinely arrived, and this time it really will be televised.
If you're interested in how your airport could benefit from going digital, leave your contact details and one of our team will be in touch.