Virtual Control?

As I was reading the latest issue of Wired the other day, a tidbit updating the remote air traffic management system being developed by Saab and Sweden's LFV air traffic control service piqued my curiosity enough for me to delve into the topic deeper. My first thought was simple: leave it to the Swedes to maximize practicality and efficiency (oh, how I miss my Saab 9.3 hatchback and its utilitarian design and its turbo, pre-GM!). The next thing that came to mind after reading more on Saab's website about what it calls the Remote Tower (r-TWR) was — in yet another testament to pop culture's grip on my mind as a reference tool — Minority Report. Not in the Big-Brother kind of way, but in the futuristic-technology kind of way.

The basic concept of Saab’s Remote Tower is to manage the air traffic of two (or more) small or medium-size airports from one remotely located control center, which can be located “anywhere.” To accomplish this, an “r-TWR Mast” — armed with an array of hi-tech cameras and sensors — installed at each airport relays data to one (yes, I said one) controller sitting in one remotely located control tower. Here the controller monitors the airports’ traffic information conveyed from the masts. The system tracks incoming traffic, even in low-viz conditions that normally would limit what controllers can see, and identifies the traffic on a large 360-degree panoramic screen in high def, making it easier for the controller to see and follow.

Another scenario where Saab says the remote tower system would be useful is at airports where runways or taxiways are out of visual range of the existing tower. Here, the r-TWR Mast is located near the out-of-view surface, allowing remote control from the existing tower. (I wonder if this idea was considered when they built the additional runway — and the additional tower — at Chicago's O'hare a couple of years ago?)

Saab’s video promoting the remote ATM system says it all.

From what I gathered from my brief research, the project grew out of the European program SESAR (Single European Sky ATM Research) to develop modernized air traffic management system for Europe, with main goals of improving safety while reducing operational costs. Both scenarios outlined above would seem to achieve those goals by way of optimizing visual enhanced technology and decreasing construction costs of new control towers and operational costs of staffing.

After testing the system at Sweden’s Ängelholm and Malmö airports, the r-TWR system is scheduled to be installed and implemented at Sundsvall and Örnsköldsvik regional airports, the first to sign contracts for the system. The Sundsvall r-TWR Center will monitor Örnsköldsvik some 60 miles away. Plans are to have the system operational in 2012. And the system is attracting interest beyond Sweden. Airservices Australia, according to its website, signed a contract with Saab in May to install and test the r-TWR system next year at Alice Springs and Adelaide airports. Staff will control air traffic at Alice Springs from the Adelaide facility some 900 miles away.

Saab isn’t the only company developing the technology, however. According to a_ 2010 Jane’s Airport Review_, Germany’s air navigation service provider, the ANSP DFS, installed Canadian-based Searidge Technologies’ IntelliDAR video sensors at Cologne Airport so controllers had a visual check of a taxiway that is obscured by a warehouse. And United Kingdom’s NATS has implemented Northrup Grumman’s Virtual Contingency Facility as a backup facility for Heathrow in the event the main tower is disrupted.

Could something like this really work in the United States? Even if the facilities that are adopting it now show success, it would have a large hurdle to overcome I would think — air traffic controllers would have to accept the technology.


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